Gangmasters Licensing Authority visit Filey over concerns for cockle pickers

A government agency set up to tackle exploitation and forced labour has begun an investigation into the welfare of a group of cockle pickers working on Filey's beach.

Filey Brigg

Staff from the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority visited Filey last week after concerns for the safety of the workers, whose nationalities have not been disclosed, were raised.

Cockles are a type of edible shellfish popular in both eastern and western cuisines. They can be collected by raking them from the sands at low tide, but the work is labour-intensive and can be dangerous if tides are not monitored.

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In England, beachcombers are permitted to remove up to 5kg of cockles for personal use, but anyone collecting a larger quantity requires a licence and permit to do so, as their activities are considered commercial fishing.

The GLAA was set up following the Morecambe Bay tragedy in 2004, when 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned when they were cut off by the incoming tide and the use of poorly-paid migrant workers to harvest seafood was thrown into focus.

The victims were undocumented illegal migrants who had arrived in the country inside shipping containers which docked in Liverpool. They were hired out via local agents with connections to Chinese triad gangs. The workers spoke little English and were unfamiliar with the geography of the area and tide times.

A Chinese gangmaster was sentenced to 12 years in prison for their manslaughter.

A GLAA spokesman said: "We can confirm that there was a multi-agency visit involving ourselves and partners. Investigations are ongoing.

"Whenever there are reports of activity relating to people allegedly gathering shellfish we have a responsibility to ensure there is no exploitation of workers happening, that the work is licensed correctly and, working with other partner agencies, that people are not putting themselves at risk of harm from doing this.

"Incidents like at Filey this week are repeated across the country and it’s prudent for us to take an interest. If there is evidence of criminal offences or anything else that needs investigating, we will do so."

Earlier this month, the GLAA took part in an investigation into illegal shellfish harvesting on Redcar beach. Up to 40 people who have travelled from Leeds and other areas of West Yorkshire were caught collecting large amounts of crabs, lobsters, mussels and lobsters with the intention of selling them to restaurants - despite the Redcar cockles not being fit for human consumption.

No arrests were made and the shellfish were returned to the sea.

Fisheries officers have not approved permits for cockle picking in the Redcar area for over 10 years, as stocks had dwindled to unsustainable levels.