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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 21:03 GMT
UK action on gangmasters 'flawed'
There have been calls to protect migrant workers from danger
The government has been criticised by the chairman of a group of senior MPs for failing to act over gangmasters who exploit migrant workers.

Not enough had been done in response to concerns in a report last September, Michael Jack, environmental, food and rural affairs committee chairman said.

Farming minister Lord Whitty earlier said the government would support a backbencher's bid for a new law.

Jim Sheridan MP wants legislation to regulate employers of illegal labour.

The call follows the deaths of Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay.

Mr Jack said the government needed a much more co-ordinated approach to the exploitation of migrant workers - rather than individual ministries looking at their own responsibilities.

When the committee re-convenes, Mr Jack says MPs will "want to know from ministers how this silo mentality can be prevented in future".

Tougher penalties

Earlier, the chairman of the Commons home affairs committee said there should be much tougher penalties for the gangmasters.

John Denham said they should face the seizure of their profits, in the way that drug dealers can have their assets confiscated.

Meanwhile, on Friday, fishing boss David Eden, arrested following the cocklers' deaths, denied any blame and claimed that he was being made a scapegoat.

Two survivors of the tragedy, Gua Lin, 30, and Lin Mu Lung, 29, who were also arrested over the deaths and released on bail, issued a statement on Friday denying any responsibility.

Their solicitor Trevor Colebourne said: "They were part of a large group of cockle pickers who were recruited to work in the Morecambe Bay area for a pittance of a wage.

"They were given rudimentary equipment. They were untrained and blatantly unaware of the risks involved."

In the wake of the deaths, there have been calls from both sides of the Commons for action to be taken to protect migrant workers who might be trapped with low wages, dangerous conditions and the threat of violence.

We have got to focus not on the individual illegal workers but on the people who are employing them
John Denham
Home Office Minister

Lord Whitty, speaking on BBC Radio 4's World at One, said the government would support the general principles of a bill to regulate gangmasters - but there were some details still to be discussed.

He said a centralised licensing and registration system would "ensure that the quality of the people who are providing the labour can be checked at one point".

Last year, the Commons environment committee reported serious failings in the current safeguards.

A Liberal Democrat member of the environment committee, Colin Breed, said that the government had been "breathtakingly complacent" about addressing the problem of rogue gangmasters.

Mr Denham, a former Home Office Minister, called for a much tougher line on rogue employers - saying there needs to be a "profound re-think" in how employers of illegal labour are punished.

Drug dealing

"We have got to focus not on the individual illegal workers but on the people who are employing them," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"In many cases they are never charged or the fines are trivial and the consequences are tiny compared to the profits that can be made.

John Denham
John Denham says illegal employers should be stripped of profits

"It's time now that we used the type of legislation we've got to deal with other organised criminals, like the Proceeds of Crime Act, which means that if someone gets convicted of drug dealing you can confiscate their assets."

The networks of illegal employment needed to broken up, he said, not just in agriculture, but in other areas such as contract cleaning and hotel work.

'Appalling exploitation'

His call for a tougher line was shared by ex-Conservative cabinet minister Gillian Shephard, who described how migrant workers - both legal and illegal - faced "appalling exploitation".

Ms Shephard, MP for South West Norfolk, said that workers had wages docked for items such as travel, food and accommodation, leaving them with only "slave wages".

Even where the workers were legal, such as from Portugal, she said they were blocked and intimidated by employers from seeking their rights.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
"The almost Dickensian nature of this tragedy means the government is under pressure"



SEE ALSO:
Fishing boss protests innocence
13 Feb 04  |  Lancashire
Cockle beds must close, MP urges
12 Feb 04  |  Lancashire
South China's fortune seekers
09 Feb 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Tide kills 18 cockle pickers
06 Feb 04  |  Lancashire


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