CHINESE MIGRANTS FORCED BACK TO COCKLING BY U.K. CRACKDOWN


2004.06.11
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Dozens of Chinese workers turned away from low-paying jobs in restaurants because of an immigration crackdown are returning to the treacherous sands of Britain�s Morecambe Bay�where 23 cocklers drowned in February�to to earn a living gathering cockles in spite of the dangers, RFA�s Mandarin service reports.

In interviews since the drownings, several Chinese cocklers said they had no choice but to hang on, because a return to China would mean a return to vast debts that they could not repay and ruin for all their families.

�We have just arrived, been here just one to two months,� one cockler said. �We still have not earned enough money. If we were caught and sent home, we would be all finished, and all our family members would be completely finished too.�

His colleagues said they had debts averaging around 300,000 yuan (U.S.$36,000), and could pay a further 80-90,000 yuan (U.S.$10,000) fine for leaving China illegally.

Around 200 Chinese cocklers are now living in near Morecambe Bay, in cramped living conditions where they do little but work and sleep, and are forced to pay their gangmaster for food.

Asked if conditions were tough, another cockler replied: �It is hard to say. Different people have different ideas [about what is tough], and different people have different obligations,� he said. �We are living in Britain illegally. Nobody in Britain wants to do this cockle-picking job. It is really tiring work. However, we Chinese have no choice if we are to survive,� he added.

But before the tragedy at least, not all Chinese cocklers were illegal immigrants, and the job was sought after even among those who arrived in the country legally but lacked the language and social integration needed to compete in the mainstream economy.

�Cockling is actually regarded as quite a good job by Chinese people in the U.K., because you get quite high wages, and there are no problems with actually getting hold of your wages, because you can get paid on the same day,� said Hsiao-hung Pai, a journalist who has lived and worked with Chinese migrant workers under cover.

�Before, there were about 100 Chinese people in Morecambe Bay. Now there are more than 200,� Pai said. �They are still waiting to work. If the police come by to check, or the media try to talk to them, they�ll stop, but they won�t leave.�

�A lot of people are like that, working when they can... A lot went up to Morecambe after getting fired from their jobs [in the immigration crackdown].�

Detective Superintendent Mick Gradwell, a member of the police team investigating the deaths of the 23 cocklers, said government action had had only a limited effect.

�We have a lot of people who are still getting here by all sorts of means and are delivering themselves into the country... and they try to find all sorts of work and become part of the black economy,� he said.

Gradwell, who was there on the night the first emergency calls came in on Feb. 5, said the vulnerability of the workers might not be obvious at first glance across the wide expanse of Morecambe Bay.

But local people do not cross the sands without specially trained guides, a tradition dating back 400 years.

�I think it strikes you more when you go to the mortuary and you see these poor unfortunate people who have died in these circumstances and then you see where they were living, the conditions they were living in and it just does bring out these terrible conditions and a tragic story,� he said.

�People have been attracted by these supposedly high wages, but to get the high wages they have to come and put themselves through a great deal of danger...dealing with people who are only concerned about making money...They�re very much open to abuse,� Gradwell said. #####

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