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March 29, 2006

Twenty-three dead Chinese cockle-pickers: who's really to blame?

Posted by Richard D. North

Twenty-three Chinese cockle-pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay in February 2004. Yesterday Lin Liang Ren started a fourteen year prison sentence for his part in their deaths. Richard D. North asks, is Lin Liang Ren really the only person who should be blamed for their deaths?

The twenty-three young Chinese cockle-pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay in February 2004 left a slightly greater number of fatherless children back at home. The Dead were in large measure mature, committed people, looking after their families. It is impossible not to admire their determination to make a living. Ignorance or nobility led one of the victims, minutes before his death, to seem almost to exonerate the man who is now bearing the heaviest responsibility for the disaster. Guo Bin Long yelled across 5,000 miles to his wife:

It's a tiny mistake by my boss.
Or was it a feeling that he should deflect his wife's anger away from his fearsome employer?

Yesterday, 29th March 2006, Lin Liang Ren - that "boss" - started a fourteen year prison sentence on twenty-one counts of manslaughter and related charges for his part in the deaths. On the face of it, and if The Times account is right, the British court was right to see him as brutal and callous. He was adept at working the system and faked such respectability as his cockle-picking operations aspired to.

That said, as he and a few fellow Chinese go down, we are left with some very interesting questions.

The media accounts of the events on the cockle beds and in the courtroom have been plain inadequate. Take the BBC drama-documentary broadcast 24th March 2006 (Death on the Beach, written and directed by Pip Clothier), as news of the manslaughter verdict was announced.

The cockle-pickers were described as they often are as the victims of human traffickers. But we spent quite a lot of time with a reconstruction of the life and death of them. Guo Bin Long was a failed farmer from a village near Fuqing City, in Fujian Province in south-east China. He owed around 30,000 even before he decided to borrow 18,000 to pay the trafficking gangs who would get him to the UK.

Doubtless that was a steep price to pay. But the Snakehead gang who took his money played their part and delivered him to London. Was he their victim? He presumably knew they were crooks and that he was travelling to, and would live in, the UK illegally. He seems to have suspected, as the people who are following in his footsteps suspect, that Britain is an easy-going sort of place.

In light of this drowning tragedy, our immigration authorities are now blamed for not cracking down on "illegals". Or rather, for not looking after them better which would have meant locking them up. The permit system which was supposed to control the cockle fishery was plainly ramshackle. But illegals such as Guo Bin Long would not have been thrilled if the authorities had been more efficient.

There is evidence that the cockle-picking operation was connected to Chinese gangs, and that it was made clear that it wouldn't pay the bereaved families to make difficulties after the deaths. But so far as one can tell, the cockle-pickers volunteered eagerly for the work, and were paid in an orderly way for what they did. Did they know their "boss" broke every rule in the book as he gave them work? Did they care?

I am in no position to judge to what degree the cockle-pickers should have looked after their own safety. The Health and Safety Executive for once not fuddy-duddy has (since the tragedy) issued guidelines which don't look too difficult to understand and which - they say - should keep people safe on the sands. The instructions are available in both Chinese and Polish. I hope the court judged properly whether Lin Liang Ren was stupid or sinister in the safety advice if any he gave his team and to what extent they should have considered these things for themselves.

It's not been clear from the media how much Lin Liang Ren's team thought they were sub-contractors to him, or his employees, or as it were his freelance suppliers. It would be fascinating to know the degree to which they felt they were his responsibility.

But it seems rather too easy to lay all the blame on Chinese of one sort or another.

The BBC film touched on (but did not remotely develop) the idea that some rather knowledgeable people weren't much bothered by the Chinese out on the sands on a night with more dangerous conditions than the foreigners had ever known there.

Indigenous cockle-pickers seem to have made desultory attempts to let the Chinese know they were at risk, and then gone off to the pub for band practice.

On the evidence of the BBC film, the Edens (a father and son cockle-dealing combo) had signed up Lin Liang Ren and his team to fill one truck with cockles at dusk and another at dawn. The court acquitted the Edens on a charge of "facilitation". Still, it seemed odd to hear the Eden son tell the camera that it would have been dangerous to work out on the sands that night. But the obvious question, not put by the TV team, was: how else did he suppose the cockles were to be hauled in?

The film also told us the first call to the emergency services was made 45 minutes before there was any response. Again, we were told nothing more about that failure.

These may be inadequacies more of the TV film than of the people it portrayed but the rest of the media seem to have been incurious on these points too.

Lin Liang Ren certainly abandoned his team. He certainly had the language skills which could have ensured rescuers knew in a timely way what they were dealing with. But it seems likely that he was merely one of many people whose greater diligence might have saved them.

(The fullest account of the trial can be found in the Westmoreland Gazette: See also Hsiao-Hung Pai's article in The Guardian: Another Morecambe Bay is waiting to happen and Pip Clothier's account in The Times.)

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world. He is also the editor of

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I have a (rather morbid) question about this case - the headline on this piece (and the text) mentions 23 dead cockle pickers. Yet the conviction is on 21 counts of manslaughter. This is not simply a case of Richard D. North getting the numbers wrong - many press reports mention 23 dead. So why the discrepancy - and were there 21 or 23 deaths?

Posted by: Dan at March 29, 2006 09:33 PM

23 cocklers never came a shore alive that night, but only 21 of them were found. That's why.

Posted by: Martin Petersen at May 8, 2006 07:06 AM
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