Ten years ago the sands of Morecambe Bay were stained by modern slavery. The death of 23 terrified Chinese cockle pickers, left stranded as the tide swept in, shocked our country.
Smuggled into the region with the false promise of prosperity, two women and 22 men were sent to do the treacherous beach work on 5 February 2004. Their ringleaders had destroyed their passports, and, using violence, threats and the cruellest of coercion, they destroyed their lives too.
Only one survived. Li Hua spoke recently of his constant anguish. He tells of the night terrors, the panic attacks and his gut-wrenching sadness. Despite everything though, he knows he’s lucky to be alive.
In the end the principal trafficker, Triad chief Lin Liang Ren, served just four months in prison for each of the lives he ended. Others, including his then girlfriend, were convicted of immigration offences.
A decade later too many people live with the torment Li Hua describes. Millions more are yet to know the freedom he grips so tightly today. Countless criminals continue to exploit victims unabated.
The global slavery picture is naturally blurry. Some organisations estimate that as many as 27 million people are enslaved, others like the Walk Free Foundation have created an Index which tries to a make country by country assessment. The UN says that trafficking ranks second only to the drug trade amongst the most valuable international crimes.
As the grim Morecambe anniversary passes, the picture in the UK is murkier still. In the space of nine months in 2013 over a thousand victims were identified, according to the Home Office. But, because of flaws in our victim referral system and enforcement approach, the true number is much higher.
Yet amidst the injustice a precious opportunity has emerged. Following the Centre for Social Justice’s 2013 report It Happens Here, the Home Secretary has committed to pass a new Modern Slavery Bill. If crafted ambitiously and backed by Labour, it has the potential to prevent further tragedies like the one we remember today.
The Bill should create an independent role for an Anti-Slavery Commissioner to give a voice to survivors. It should bring clarity to the law to make policing, prosecutions and convictions easier. It should also ensure that businesses make a priority of ensuring their supply chains are clear of modern slavery. Horsemeat instead of beef caused outrage. What about the reality of slaves instead of staff?
Today, as we think of those who died at Morecambe Bay, we have a way out. Through a Modern Slavery Bill the UK can lead again. Let’s take our chance.
Christian Guy is Director of the Centre for Social Justice