Trafficking gangs involved in Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy 'untouchable' 20 years on

  • Report by Granada Reports Correspondent Elaine Willcox

The international trafficking gangs linked to the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay remain 'untouchable', a detective has warned.

DS Micheal Gradwell, the former detective who led Lancashire's Police investigation in February 2004, says he believed the Snakeheads or people smugglers linked to international triad gangs still operate and continue to evade prosecution - 20 years on from the disaster.

Twenty three Chinese illegal workers drowned forced by their gangmaster to pick cockles at Morecambe Bay Credit: ITV Granada Reports

After the tragedy, the police investigation revealed £1 million was being sent from the UK to China every day, from the exploitation of illegal workers in cockling, sex work and nail bars.

Former DS Gradwell said: "We closed down the gang's banking system but it was quickly up and running again."

Within days of wages being paid in Morecambe the money had gone through bank accounts in London, before moving onto China and to the families.

But the largest share went to the traffickers.

  • ITV Granada Reports broadcast a special on the disaster in 2006: The Morecambe Bay Cockling Tragedy

In September 2005, I travelled to Fujian Province in China, where most of the victims and their gangmaster were from, to see what drove them to take such risks on the treacherous sands at Morecambe Bay.

The Chinese authorities had denied us permission to film, and the families had been rounded up and warned of harsh penalties if they spoke out.

Some of the victims widows holding banners begging for help Credit: ITV Granada Reports

But they agreed to meet me, because they were desperate fearing losing their homes and children.

Most of the workers paid Snakeheads between £14,000 - £20,000 to smuggle their loved ones into England through containers into Liverpool. They were then hired out by agents of Chinese organised crime gangs - known as Triads, with the promise of earning high wages.

But the reality was very different.

Guo Bing Long's widow with her adoptive daughter, who her family said they couldn't afford to look after Credit: ITV Granada Reports

After Guo Bing Long drowned at Morecambe Bay, his widow told me she was being forced to give up their adoptive daughter.

Her husband's family said with the main earner dead, they could not afford to look after both her children and pay back their debts.

Gou Bing Long's mother could not cope with the mounting debts and swallowed poison and is buried alongside her son Credit: ITV Granada Reports

After waiting nine months for her son's coffin to be sent home to China, Guo's mother could not cope with their financial situation and swallowed poison and is now buried alongside her son.

Xu Bing was orphaned when his parents drowned at Morecambe Bay Credit: ITV Granada Reports

Xu Bing was 15 when he was orphaned, after his parents drowned at Morecambe Bay.

His father had been in Britain for several years but the family say he was not earning enough to pay their Snakehead.

His wife had only been in the country for two weeks when she drowned. Picking cockles was the only work she could find.

Xu's parents in a picture taken at Morecambe Bay the day before they drowned Credit: ITV Granada Reports

Police believe their gangmaster Lin Liang Ren, a qualified accountant from a wealthy family in Fuqing City was linked to China's international triad smuggling gangs.

The traffickers ensured a supply of indebted workers, and the Gangmaster's provide the employment.

Ren was expecting to make £70,000 for the shellfish on the night he forced his workers out on the sands in rising tides.

Paying them as little as £10 for the back-breaking work plus charging them for squalid accommodation, with as many as 30 people sharing one bathroom.

Gangmaster Lin Liang Ren served 7 years for manslaughter of 21 cockle pickers Credit: ITV Granada

In court, some of the Chinese survivors who gave evidence against the gangs, said Ren and his cousin Lin Mu Yong would not speak or even look at the workers, adding "they were beneath them".

In March 2006 Lin Liang Ren was sentenced for 14 years, serving just seven for the manslaughter of 21 people before being deported.

During his trial, his mother Shen Ai Mei agreed to meet me, insisting her son was not involved.

Gangmaster Lin Liang Ren's mother, and parents of his cousin Lin Mu Yong Credit: ITV Granada Reports

She told me he was working to pay for his studies, and didn't believe he was the gangmaster.

She said: "I can't believe my son was such a guy".

He had spent vast sums gambling in casinos while his countrymen and women were working and paid them a pittance.

The court was told if Ren had allowed his workers to come off the beach before the tide came in, they would have survived.

His mother insisted: "He was just one of the workers there, he shouldn't take responsibility for that."

Some of the victims bodies being recovered from the beach in the days after the tragedy Credit: ITV Granada

The gangmaster's family did not like my questions and reported me to the Chinese authorities, forcing us to leave immediately for the airport.

They did not want us to share the victims stories, exposing the illegal trade in people.

The victims family gripped by grief and fear after the deaths of 23 workers in Morecambe Bay Credit: ITV Granada Reports

At a memorial service to mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, all 23 names of the victims will be read out on the beach at Morecambe Bay.

With a powerful call for action to end the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable people.

Those taking part in the vigil will be given a cockle shell to take away as a permanent reminder of the ongoing fight against modern slavery and the lives that were lost.

Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Rev. Philip North said: "This will be a solemn moment for the community in Morecambe as we join together to remember the innocent lives lost to greed and slavery in the waters of Morecambe Bay.

"We mourn with and pray for the families and loved ones of our Chinese brothers and sisters who died 20 years ago and for an end to the curse of modern slavery."

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