The gang of 19 cockle pickers, believed to be mostly Chinese immigrants, who drowned in Morecambe Bay were being paid just £1 for nine hours work a day, Lancashire police said yesterday.
Detective Superintendent Mick Gradwell, who is leading the investigation, said the scale of the exploitation of immigrant workers was "appalling" and said officers were near to discovering the gangmasters suspected of controlling the operation.
The victims 17 men and two women, believed to include teenagers and some in their twenties were in a group of more than 30 workers caught in rising tides on Thursday night. Detectives have started interviewing the 16 survivors, with the help of interpreters, to find out who instructed them to gather cockles in such dangerous conditions.
Det Supt Gradwell said: "These were tragic events where vulnerable people were being used to work in physically hard circumstances for about £1 for a nine-hour shift. It is appalling. We are narrowing down the names of the gangmasters who might be responsible. We expect to make arrests within days rather than months."
However, Det Supt Gradwell, who is concentrating his investigations in Merseyside, from where many of the group are believed to have travelled, rejected suggestions they may have been controlled by a "snakehead" gang, the name given to Chinese criminals who profit from smuggling migrants into Britain.
Around 2,000 people a year come to this country from China. Some migrants come on official work permits but the majority come illegally, paying thousands of pounds to gangs in return for ensuring their passage to Britain.
Those from Fujian, which is one of China's poorest provinces, often end up working on the land because they are not skilled enough to work in hotels or restaurants. Although vulnerable to exploitation, they can still earn in a year what they would take more than five years to earn in China. Thomas Chan, the director of Chinese in Britain Forum and a member of the Home Office race equality advisory panel, said that the majority of people who worked on the land were young people in their twenties.
He called on ministers to introduce a quota system to allow more Chinese people to work in Britain legally. "We have to realise there is a need for these workers but the Government does not talk to the business community," said Mr Chan. "On a work permit scheme they would not need to come here illegally."
The tragedy in Morecambe has also led to calls for the Government to create a legal register of gangmasters.
Ministers are understood to be in discussions with bosses who employ workers from overseas, especially in agriculture, on drawing up a voluntary code of practice on migrant labour. But the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) wants ministers to go further and back a private member's Bill proposing a gangmaster register.
Don Pollard of the TGWU told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that registration was a "big issue".
"At the present time nothing is required of any gangmaster to register, and that is what enables a lot of exploitation of workers to take place," he said.