You may remember the Irish tune about Molly Malone, seller of fresh cockles and mussels.
In Dublin's fair city,
where the girls are so pretty
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone
As she wheel'd her wheel barrow
Thro' streets broad and narrow
Crying "Cockles and Mussels alive, alive O!"
Alive, alive O! Alive, alive O
Crying Cockles and Mussels Alive, alive O!
She was a fishmonger,
But sure 'twas no wonder,
For so were her father and mother before,
And they each wheel'd their barrow
Thro' streets broad and narrow,
She died of a fever
And no one could save her,
And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone;
But her ghost wheels her barrow
Thro' streets broad and narrow
[Written and composed by James Yorkston]
Poor Molly died of a fever, but more recently, on a cold, rainy night in February, at least 21 illegal Chinese immigrants died while attempting a nightime harvesting of cockles at treacherous Morecambe Bay in northwest England. The Bay is known not just for its beauty, but also for its deadly coastline with fast rising tides and quicksands. The harvesters were caught when the waters rose behind them, cutting off access to the shore. To compound the problem, they were working at night and were unfamiliar with the terrain. Now the master of the crew, Lin Liang Ren, 29 years old, has been charged with criminal negligence in the deaths of the workers.
Morecambe Bay is holds millions of pounds worth of cockles, a small mollusc popular in southern Europe, especially Spain. High prices have caused a rush to pick them. The price of cockles has soared from 200-300 pounds per ton, to 1,500 pounds in the past few years, after mechanical harvesting was banned in Holland, making England Europe's only supplier.
Some of the gatherers are independent local people who can earn a very good living from the difficult harvest. But much collecting has been done by gangs of illegal migrants, crammed into dormitories and indebted to criminals who smuggled them to Britain. The migrant workers often meet fierce resistance from the locals (reminiscent of the lobster wars -- see our August 29 blog.)
Crewmaster Lin hooked up with Tony Eden, proprietor of the Liverpool Bay Fishing Company. Eden agreed to pay £15 a bag for the cockles. The locals were not pleased to see the Chinese workers invade their territory. Police were called to a confrontation 10 days before the tragedy in which a consignment of cockles picked by the Chinese was set on fire and another contaminated with diesel fuel.
That day Tony Eden complained to police that he had received a death threat for buying from the Chinese. A card delivered to his brother Jamie's home read: "Our condolences, Jamie, on your forthcoming bereavement."
The prosecution has charged Lin with criminal negligence in the 21 deaths. When police first arrived at the scene, Lin denied that he had anything to do with managing the crew -- he insisted that the crew chief was one of the people who drowned! Prosecutors are also alleging that Tony Eden knew "full well" that the cockle pickers were illegal immigrants and was helping them remain in Britain by buying their harvest.
The negligence stems from the conditions on the night of Feb 5: it was no secret that the tide was going to be high and weather wretched. The local cockle pickers either did not go out or went out for a short time and returned to shore well before the tide came in. The Chinese crew, under Lin's direction, stayed out too long and were drowned.
My sympathies, of course, are with the workers, whose faces, full of hopes, dreams and concerns, can be seen here. Escaping poverty and lack of opportunity in their homeland, they were smuggled into England, crammed into horrible living conditions, surrounded by a hostile populace, in constant fear of arrest, not understanding the language, not knowing the land. Theirs was a terrible fate. Now it is a question of management accountability -- something we probe frequently in this blog. While there may be times when managers are held accountable for things well beyond their control, this does not appear to be one of them. Lin could not control the weather, but he was obligated to know the forecast and act accordingly. The rising tide at Morecambe Bay swept away a score of lives and a host of dreams. All for a few dollars worth of "cockles and mussels, alive, alive O."