Days without eating and 16 hour shifts: Exploitation is still rife 20 years after Morecambe Bay

  • Report by Emma Sweeney

Workers are still being dangerously exploited in the UK 20 years on from the Morecambe Bay disaster - which claimed the lives of 23 Chinese cocklepickers.

The numbers of those trapped as modern slaves in the care sector has been increasingly rising, as rules around immigration were relaxed to help prop up the social care system.

The move, by the Home Office in 2022, hoped to attract foreign workers into the system, but organisations say the move has led to some workers being “duped” into paying excessive sponsorship fees and ending up becoming trapped in a life of debt and exploitation.

Michael - not his real name - was one such worker. Enticed by the promise of a better quality of life, he left his home in West Africa to settle in the North West as a carer.

The agency in his home country initially told him it would cost £3000 for his sponsorship visa and agency fees - but after paying that amount he was then told that he owed a further £10,000, which would be deducted from his weekly wage packet.

Michael says there were days he “went without eating or doing basic stuff”, adding: “That’s just the way it is.

“There’s nothing you can do about it cause when you tell them they don’t want to listen.

“They tell you ‘you owe them the money, you owe them’.

“They always use the word, ‘we brought you to the UK and you owe us this money’.”

Credit: ITV Granada

In a bid to try and pay off his debt, Michael began working 16 hour days which he found “draining” both mentally and physically.

“You wake up at 4am, that’s when you start your day. You work from 4pm all the way to about 10pm before you get back home.

“Then you have just a few hours sleep and then you go back again at 4am the next day and you keep going, just like that.”

Michael says there were times when the pressure became so overwhelming that he broke down. When he told the agency, he claims that they responded by saying “there’s no-one else to take your place.

“If you don’t do the work, whatever happens to the clients is in your hands.”

Credit: GLAA

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority [GLAA], which was set up in the wake of the Morecambe Bay tragedy, says many are being charged almost 10 times as much as they should be for visas.

A total of 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned when they were cut off by the tide on 5 February 2004.

The workers, all aged between 18 and 45, had been trafficked into the area by Liverpool gang-masters to work, and spoke little English and had no local knowledge or relevant skills

The disaster led to the creation of the GLAA, to try and better protect workers - but it is now warning people are still being dangerously exploited.

Senior Investigating Officer Martin Plimmer is one of those leading the fight against those “unscrupulous agents” who are “charging workers sometimes £10,000” for visas that would cost “less than £1000” if they’d gone through legitimate means.

In 2023, the anti-slavery charity Unseen recorded at least 800 potential victims of modern slavery within the social care sector alone, compared to the 63 cases they recorded in 2021.

Martin Plimmer said: "excessive numbers of people needed to be recruited into the industry, and the major part of that recruitment takes places in other countries where we can't regulate that and can't oversee it.

"There's also a dire need for workers. If there aren't enough workers to fill the vacancies, then the pressure is on for people to work excessive hours and work double shifts."

Causeway - the charity supporting Michael - has also seen an increase in the number of exploited carers walking through its doors.

Amy Bond, the charity’s chief operating officer, says some of those victims have “received no pay at all” after being forced to pay off their debts “before receiving a penny of their own income.”

Others are forced to live in “really squalid conditions or overcrowded housing” and are forced to “scrape around for food”, while living in fear of their exploiters. 

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Modern slavery is a barbaric crime and we are committed to ensuring that the necessary support is available to victims of modern slavery to help them rebuild their lives. We are bringing perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice and are working with the police and operational partners to drive up prosecutions.”

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