One of the men arrested in connection with the deaths of 19 cocklers in Morecambe Bay said yesterday that British racism and bureaucratic failings had caused the disaster.
David Eden 33, a director of the Liverpool Bay Fishing Company, said he agreed to employ Chinese cocklers after a conversation with a Chinese man in his 20s, three weeks before the tragedy. He said he had no reason to suspect the man was a gangmaster and offered him £15 for each bag of cockles.
Since the Chinese had been granted cockling permits, he said he assumed that they would be safe on the sands. If permits had been granted to inexperienced illegal immigrants, Ben Bradshaw, the Fisheries minister, was culpable, he said.
The Chinese workers braved perilous tides on 5 February, the day they died, because they wanted to evade cocklers who had threatened them racially and physically, Mr Eden said.
"These people have been persecuted not by gangmasters but by British people.'' He claimed that he had taped evidence of an interview with police in which an officer referred to the cocklers as "chinks''. Mr Eden, who employs six people, refused to divulge how much profit he and his father, also David, 60, earned from the business.
In a statement issued through a solicitor, two Chinese men who were also arrested in connection with the tragedy denied any responsibility.
Blackpool-based solicitor Trevor Colebourne said his clients, Gua Lin. 30 and Lin Mu Lung, 29, had been part of a large group of cockle pickers who were recruited to work in the Morecambe Bay area for "a pittance of a wage" and were unaware of the risk involved.
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