Dog walker reveals details of industrial shellfish operation at Hill Head as slavery probe launches
AROUND 40 people detained in a major operation linked to oyster picking were being processed as possible victims of slavery.
Police led by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority’s officers swooped at Hill Head and at the Hamble, with reportedly up to 60 people on the shoreline there to pick shellfish.
A police drone captured the operation, reportedly months in the planning, with a Hampshire marine unit vessel in the Solent keeping an eye on the waters.
In total 40 people were stopped by authorities as some of the shellfish pickers were not spoken with, police said.
Translators and Immigration Enforcement officers were at Hill Head Sailing Club helping process the workers.
GLAA Senior Investigating Officer Jennifer Baines said: ‘We know only too well the tragic consequences that illegal shellfish gathering can have when we think back to the Morecambe Bay cockle picking disaster of 2004, in which 23 Chinese workers lost their lives.
‘That’s why we take reports of illegal shellfish gathering extremely seriously, it’s why there is legislation that governs those who employ people to do this type of work, and it’s why it was crucial we acted today with our partners to ensure we understand fully what has been happening on the seafront in Hampshire today.
‘Our investigations are continuing so we can learn fully what has been going on.’
A 50-year-old dog walker, from Stubbington, told The News he regularly sees large groups methodically picking oysters, washing them in huge bags of salt and water, and being urged to keep picking by people who appear to be overseeing the work.
He said: ‘We go there (each day) at just gone 6am to walk the dog. They’re young girls, young boys, old men, old women. None of them speak English apart from a bad attempt at “good morning”.
‘It’s like they’ve been told to smile and be friendly. Some of the Hill Head residents last year were told they’d travelled down from London and Bedford.’
Authorities could not confirm the ages of people involved yesterday.
Groups of people parking in Hill Head side streets before heading to the shore are a common sight, with pickers in action even when the beach is packed with families.
Commercial collection of oysters is illegal. Some of the pickers could be victims of modern slavery, authorities said.
‘They’re literally out there all the time,’ the dog walker said. ‘The gangmaster tells them to come on. There are some there making sure they’re picking.’
Fareham Borough Council leader Sean Woodward said: ‘There’s the modern day slavery issue and there's also the health issue that seafood from the Solent isn't something you want to be necessarily eating.
‘It’s not acceptable, this sort of behaviour and people don't like it. It’s damaging to the environment and there may be a slavery issue.’
A joint statement from the police and the GLAA said: ‘We received information regarding large-scale cockle picking along the shoreline, and the investigation will focus on the suspected exploitation of the workers collecting the shellfish, contrary to the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004.
‘On arrival, officers found a large group of people collecting shellfish on the shore.
‘Around 40 people are currently being spoken to as potential victims of labour exploitation at two separate locations on the shoreline.’