Union leader speaks out about “dangerous exploitation of vulnerable workers” on anniversary of Morecambe Bay Cockling Disaster

On the twentieth anniversary of the Morecambe Bay Cockling Disaster, in which 21 people drowned, Unite, the UK’s leading union, has said that the widescale and often dangerous exploitation of vulnerable workers is still rife.

Unite said the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, set up in the wake of the disaster and which became the Gangmaster Licensing and Abuse Authority (GLAA) in 2017, needs urgent reform.

The authority has been successively weakened by the government, which has expanded its remit but left it increasingly underfunded. Ministers have also deliberately excluded trade unions from its board after they were previously well represented.

Since the Morecambe Bay disaster, insecure employment practices, including employment agency, zero-hour contracts, bogus self-employment, and gig economy work, have become increasingly normalised.

This has provided opportunities for exploiters to infiltrate legitimate areas of the economy, particularly in sectors such as agriculture, warehousing, meat processing, construction and garment making.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “It is now 20 years since the Morecambe Bay disaster and the dangerous exploitation of vulnerable workers is still rife.

“Unions have always been at the forefront of defending workers and Unite’s predecessor union – the T&G – successfully fought for the establishment of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to prevent such tragedies happening again.

“It is an outrage that since then the government has repeatedly chosen to attack unions and weaken employment rights wherever possible, instead of trying making people’s lives better. The replacement of the GLA with a dangerously under-resourced and overstretched organisation with no trade union oversight is just one example of this. My fear is that unless something changes it can only be a matter of time until the next tragedy.”


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