I was at Morecombe Bay 20 years ago

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Coastguard volunteer John Whitford assisted when a group of Chinese cocklepickers were stranded, in a disaster that exposed the scandal of modern slavery. Two decades on from the Morecambe Bay tragedy, he is still rescuing people from the sands

On the evening of Thursday 5 February, 2004, John Whitford, a coastguard volunteer, drove to his station in Millom, a small town on the south-west coast of Cumbria and the Irish Sea. Passing another volunteer in his garden, he pulled the car over to chat. “Quiet, isn’t it?” the other volunteer said.

Later Whitford would refer to this as “the Q word” because the slow evening preceded tragic events that would go on to make British history. The date is now synonymous with one of the most notorious mass drownings in modern times, a disaster which exposed the seams of exploitation at the heart of the country’s globalised economy and has prompted successive governments to tackle modern slavery.

Whitford was settling down at home to watch TV when the coastguard operations team called

But at that moment, chatting over a garden fence, it did seem quiet.

It was later, as Whitford was settling down at home to watch TV when the coastguard operations team called. “They informed me that a big job had kicked off,” Whitford remembered. It involved “an unknown quantity of foreign nationals, who speak little or no English, cut off by the tide in Morecambe Bay,” a vast tidal plain to the east.

Known by some locals as “the Wet Sahara”, the 120–square-mile Morecambe Bay is treacherous, both because of the quicksand, and the tide, which has been compared to an express train, because of the speed with which it changes. The news of stranded workers was not totally surprising to Whitford. He’d noticed the new groups of cockle pickers loading up their vans in the car parks. And, just three months earlier, he had attended a similar distress call.

“There was no legislation at the time,” he says. “We reported that incident up the line in November, and said that if nothing was done about it, there would be a problem.”

But the message did not seem to get through – a Lancashire Telegraph article from December 2003 reported that 500 cockling permits were issued by the North Western and North Wales Sea Fisheries Committee in just 10 days.

So Whitford left his sofa and drove back to the north side of the bay to help. “It was an inky black [night] and freezing cold,” he says. “We got the kit, got the gear, got on and did it.” At that point, his team still believed they might have arrived in time to make a difference. “As far as we knew, there were still people out there alive,” he says. “That was our priority.”

Teams of volunteers, some coastguards, others independent, walked out into the sands as the tide retreated. Whitford called a fisherman he knew to ask if he could borrow his tractor to aid in the search. “His wife was like, ‘Do you know what time it is?’” After Whitford explained, she woke her husband, who came to the phone.

That fisherman had seen these people – the 20 Chinese cockle pickers – earlier that afternoon. He told Whitford over the phone. “I saw them. I was out there earlier getting some for myself, and I thought they would be about getting off.” But the Chinese cockle pickers on the bay that night had little knowledge of the tides.

They had been bussed up from Liverpool, where they slept nine to a room. Many could not swim. They were under pressure from their recruiter to meet the orders from seafood companies, and, it was later found, that he had not told them that the tide was due to come in. Later, the question of whether more could be done to prevent the tragedy would become a public debate. But for Whitford that night, the main revelation was the numbers. “[It was only] then we had an idea of the scale of the operation.”

Above the search teams on the sand, the sky rumbled with helicopters. Whitford remembers hearing one voice on the radio in particular, a female police observer identifying bodies from the sky as the tide began to go out. Most of the cockle pickers were killed by the icy water.

“The majority didn’t drown, it would be hypothermia leading to heart failure,” Whitford says. By morning, the tide began to turn again, and Whitford’s team was ordered to retreat.

In total, 21 bodies were recovered from the bay. Six years later, a skull discovered by a local fisherman was identified as that of a 37-year-old mother, Liu Qin Ying. One of the cockle pickers, Dong Xin Wu, has never been found. Although Whitford had encountered bodies before, a tragedy on this scale left him feeling sorry for the individuals and what they had been through. “It was a shame, when you [saw] their faces,” he says. “They never really had a life.”

Even when the cockle pickers died, their debts didn’t. As the sister of one victim later wrote: “They left to go to work in England and endured a sub-human working life, just to improve our lives at home. Their deaths have brought so much pain to all of us. And since then, we have been living in debt.” She added: “I often wonder, can those who died keep their eyes closed when so much misery follows their deaths?” The debts were cleared six years later thanks to public donations.

Now, the tragedy is often seen as the catalyst for a crackdown on modern slavery in the UK, but on the slippery sands of Morecambe Bay, the reality was more complex. Indebted cockle pickers continued to venture onto the bay. Even on 7 August of the same year, just months later, the rescue teams had to be mobilised again after two tractors belonging to Scottish and Chinese cockle pickers collided in the bay in a possible turf war. “Once at the scene,” The Westmorland Gazette reported at the time, “The emergency services found that some of the 192 cocklers did not want to leave with the turn of the tide four hours away.”

“The reason it was still going on is because it was so lucrative,” says Whitford. “We saw the wagons being loaded up with 40 tonnes of cockles. Considering what they [gangmasters] were paying the poor Chinese people, they must have been making a fortune.” In the trial that followed the tragedy, it was established that the recruiter paid £5 per 25kg bag of cockles, but then sold them on the market for as much as £12.50, making a profit of up to £1,500 a day.

The tragedy is often seen as the catalyst for a crackdown on modern slavery in the UK

Whitford believes the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (now the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority) changed things. Introduced in 2005, the new legislation required gangmasters to be licensed.

In 2015, the then-home secretary Theresa May introduced the Modern Slavery Act of 2015. In both cases, the legislation focused on punishing exploitative employers rather than their victims. But modern slavery charities have warned that the Government’s latest immigration legislation, which assesses individuals based on their journey rather than the desperation of their case, is reversing this legacy.

As for the voluntary search and rescue teams like Whitford’s, they now face new challenges. With flash flooding on the rise, the volunteers are often dispatched to towns and cities rather than the sea. And the teams themselves are at risk.

“Volunteers are in short supply,” says Whitford. “For some reason nobody seems to want to do it. I’m not getting any younger. I would think most of the teams we know are short of people.” All but one of Millom’s are over the age of 45. The station, along with at least two other coastguards, recently launched drives to recruit more volunteers.

Despite being past retirement age himself, Whitford still regularly rescues people from the bay. “We help people when they are having possibly the worst day of their life.” For all the tragedy, the chance of rescuing someone still makes it worthwhile. “When you lean over from the lifeboat and get hold of someone’s hand,” he says. “There’s that look on their faces when they realise help has arrived.”

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