Creeping back to the cockle beds

Six months after the Morecambe Bay disaster, migrant workers are risking their lives again. Ian Herbert on a scandal that won't go away
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The 17 Chinese cockle pickers who piled into an old white minibus in the Liverpool dawn three days ago knew they were up against a law of diminishing returns. They had spent weeks at Askam, a sheltered bay off the Cumbrian coast 100 miles to the north, which was opened up to cocklers six weeks ago, for the first time in 20 years.

The 17 Chinese cockle pickers who piled into an old white minibus in the Liverpool dawn three days ago knew they were up against a law of diminishing returns. They had spent weeks at Askam, a sheltered bay off the Cumbrian coast 100 miles to the north, which was opened up to cocklers six weeks ago, for the first time in 20 years.

The best of the harvest - fat, 24mm-thick cockles which will yield thick chunks of meat for Spanish and Dutch processing factories - has gone, so the Chinese were going for the leftovers, cockles so small a day's work will net just £15 for those desperate enough to scratch in the mud for them. Even the pursuit of these dregs has become a risky business amid the violent wars for the cockle beds being waged between rival Chinese gangs desperate for a share of the miserly earnings.

Just before the group's minibus left the Kensington district of Liverpool, a small group of Chinese had been attacked by another group of 50 or so. The larger group, armed with rakes and pickaxe handles, besieged the smaller one's dark-blue hatchback car for five minutes before the driver could get away. A 17-year-old youth was admitted to Liverpool's Royal University hospital with a punctured lung.

The violence may have unsettled the Chinese as their 41-year-old driver weaved through the streets of Liverpool. By 5.15am, their minibus was slewed across a carriageway in the city's Bootle district after colliding with a HGV and hitting the central reservation. Yesterday three of the 16 passengers were still in the University Hospital Aintree's critical-care unit.

Merseyside Police are unsure what links there may be between the fight and the crash, but the week's events illustrate how, five months on from the Morecambe Bay disaster which killed 23 of their countrymen, many of Britain's immigrant Chinese are eking out the same miserable existence, driven into any work they can find to pay off the Snakehead gangs who have secured their passage to Britain.

After the tragedy, the Chinese abandoned the cockle beds to preserve their culture of intense privacy, but frequent immigration raids forced hundreds of them out of the catering industry where they worked long hours on low pay as kitchen porters or assistant chefs. Then came the key development: a circular from Des Browne, the Immigration minister, warning restaurateurs they would be liable to two years' imprisonment if they employed undocumented Chinese.

Hundreds of illegals were dismissed and there was no route home. Government rules mean illegal immigrants must have proper documents before they can be expelled, but the Snakeheads force the immigrants to destroy official documentation before they arrive in the UK. The Chinese government is in no hurry for their return, taking months to provide duplicates. The circumstances have been a breeding ground for cockling industry recruits, said the Chinese human right group Min Quan (Civil Rights). Jabez Lam, its spokesman, said: "These people are being pushed into cockling. Their situation is desperate."

The Chinese began creeping back to the cockle beds two months ago, bussed in from King's Lynn, London and the sweatshops of the Midlands. The major cockle-processing plants which provide most of the income were reluctant to touch them after the Morecambe Bay disaster, so at first they were selling only to local fish shops.

But by June, 150 were working Aldingham, the beds south of Askam which are now closed to cocklers, having been heavily harvested. Their earning potential has been boosted by the decision of a large Spanish buyer, Dani Foods, to begin purchasing cockles from Chinese again.

When approached by The Independent in Aldingham last month, many of the Chinese were huddled silently in the stench of a minibus hired from Barrow to transport them from Morecambe, where some are living. All pleaded a lack of English. But clues to the kind of lives they lead were in a three-storey, end-of-terrace house in Liverpool's Walton district raided by police and immigration officers on Thursday. The property, home to 40 Chinese cockle pickers, had no beds, only sleeping bags, mats and mattresses, where the occupants slept in lines of seven on every available inch. The second-floor corridor near the house's only toilet reeked of urine. Only a few of the naked light-bulbs worked.

In Deane Road, 10 minutes drive away in the Kensington district, as many as 42 Chinese are believed to be crammed into a single three-storey house. The plastic toys in the garage suggest some may have children, though none is seen. Victoria Cocker, 19, a law undergraduate who lives next door, often hears a baby crying on the other side of her wall. "It's a terrible start to a life," she said.

The rubbish bins, piled high with putrid waste cockles which refuse collectors will not take away, are a clue to the group's work. Two cockling vans arrive back at 4am most days, prompting a flurry of activity as cockling paraphernalia is unloaded. Then up to 18 people will pile into two other vans, which are on the road by five. "The vans are low at the back under the weight of the passengers," Ms Cocker said. "They'll stall sometimes as they lurch on to the road and they always look in a real rush."

Li Chen, a cockler in his late fifties from north China, shares a house with 20 people in Liverpool. He has been cockling for two months in Askam, but he travelled to London this week. He said: "The only work we can do now is waste disposal and on farms. But farm work is seasonal so there is no choice but to pick cockles. It is a two-hour journey to Askam, a cockler told me not many cockles are around but we have to carry on. There is nowhere else to go. We will be on the streets tomorrow if we don't do this."

Mr Li said the conflict between Chinese teams was caused by resistance from minders to new teams forming and taking a share of the profits.

As usual, two Chinese who answered the door shook their heads when The Independent approached the Deane Road property on Thursday. Behind them, at least 12 were packed into a small living room, one in a hospital gown.

This week, the deterioration of the Askam bed took many Chinese to a new stretch of coast at Lafan Sands, a sandbank and bird reserve overlooking Beaumaris and Puffin Island, east of Bangor in North Wales. There was a few days' work there but a police immigration swoop on the A55 approach road yesterday may force them back to Askam, where word has it that a new bed of cockles has surfaced.

If they do return for them, the North Wales group will find more competition. Industry sources say a large new group of Chinese is to arrive from the north-west in the next few days. The turf wars have already resulted in one pitched battle: 10 days ago, three cars containing a dozen Chinese men wielding baseball bats, golf clubs and cockling rakes set about workers on the pier at Askam. Most escaped but two, including Yu Long Gao, an illegal immigrant, were treated in hospital.

Cumbria Police put this down to cockler rivalries, but there are suggestions within the industry that organised crime syndicates may be fighting it out. Though most Chinese work for a prominent North Wales businessman who has six gang leaders organising them, the leader of each gang is also forced to pay £100 a day to a Chinese woman from Liverpool with good English, known as "Grace". She and her boyfriend, who denies he speaks English, watch their cocklers from a new black 4x4 on the shoreline.

Sources suggest that last week's battles began when a new group of Chinese began demanding a 20 per cent cut of Grace's money. Her boyfriend's 4x4 was smashed, as were four minibuses. The tragedy is both environmental and human, say British cockle industry sources, who fear that Morecambe Bay will be stripped of cockles if the Chinese keep picking.

Commercial common sense has dictated that beds are fished from June to November, when a 100kg bag of cockles will yield 15kg of meat, and rested from December to April, leaving the cockles to breed again. But the local cocklers realise the Chinese quest to find every last one will render beds such as Askam redundant for years. "There's already so little left now that four-fifths of the stuff they're taking off is too small," a source said. "That's the young. They're riddling it out and dumping it a pile to die. If there are fewer than 100 cockles per square metre these beds should be closed."

The North Western and North Wales Sea Fisheries Committee has the power to do that but seems under-resourced. Since the Morecambe Bay disaster, the organisation has ignored repeated attempts by The Independent to establish contact.

At Ulverston police station near Askam, Inspector Dave Spedding has a contingency plan to counter another possible Morecambe Bay, and he issues tide-time warnings in Mandarin to the workers. "I have always felt there is the potential for another tragedy," he said. "Even people who know the sands lose their lives on them."

This week, Royal Assent was given to the Gangmasters Licensing Act, which aims to clamp down on poverty wages and rip-off accommodation charges for up to 60,000 workers. But as long as Chinese are in Britain without work, they will seek any wages to pay off the people who brought them in, said Simon Wong, organiser of the Chinese Wah Sing association in Liverpool's Chinatown.

"If these people knew the hardships facing them when they arrived, they wouldn't come here," he said. "As it is, they don't have the money to return and they are trapped."

Additional reporting by Hsiao-Hung Pai