Special remembrance events will take place on the on the 20th anniversary of the Morecambe Bay Cockling Disaster, in which 21 people drowned.

It was around 9.30pm on the evening of February 5, 2004 when the group of Chinese cockle pickers, who set off from the shore at 4pm that day, were cut off by the incoming tide.

The group was cockle picking close to the low tide line near the confluence of the Keer Channel and the Kent Channel, approximately 3.5 kilometres north of Morecambe centre.

Fifteen of the group returned safely to shore but, despite an extensive search and rescue operation, 21 others drowned.

Starting at 6pm today, a service will be held at the Cocklers’ Memorial next to the RNLI station (LA4 5BY), led by the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Rev. Philip North, and the Rector of Morecambe Parish Church, Rev. Chris Krawiec. 

Also, in attendance on Monday evening will be Mr Kim Leong, Chairman of Lancaster and Morecambe Bay Chinese Community Association; The Right Worshipful, the Mayor of Lancaster, Councillor Roger Dennison, alongside representatives of the RNLI; the police, fire and ambulance services and other civic dignitaries.

The inexperienced Chinese workers were originally from the Fujian province of China and they had been trafficked via containers into Liverpool and were hired out through local criminal agents of international Chinese triads. A survivor testified that the leader of the group had made a mistake about the time of the tides.

Monday’s service will include a reading, by Mr Kim Leong, of the names of all those who were lost 20 years ago. 

A silent vigil will be held, and those present will also be invited to join in hymns and prayers, and will be offered a cockle shell to take away as a permanent reminder of the ongoing fight against modern slavery and of those who died that day.

Bishop Philip said: “This will be a solemn moment for the community in Morecambe as we join together to remember the innocent lives lost to greed and slavery in the waters of Morecambe Bay.

“We mourn with and pray for the families and loved ones of our Chinese brothers and sisters who died 20 years ago and for an end to the curse of modern slavery.”

Rev. Chris added: “At times like these it’s important to come together as a community, itself made up of different communities, to acknowledge and remember.

“As we do so we also consider how, 20 years on, trafficking and modern slavery remains a huge problem and we continue to call for change and action to bring the scourge of modern slavery to an end.”

The Mayor, Councillor Roger Dennison, said: “Our thoughts at this sad time are with the families of those who died in this terrible incident 20 years ago and also all others who have lost their lives over the years in Morecambe Bay. The tragedy was a stark reminder of the dangers posed by its treacherous tides.

"It's also a time to thank all those who bravely put their own lives at risk in the rescue operation, particularly the unpaid volunteers of the RNLI."

Union leader speaks out about ‘dangerous exploitation of vulnerable workers’

On the anniversary, Unite, the UK’s leading union, 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.

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.”