Solicitor Liana Wood, who acts for some of the victims of what has been described as the ‘largest ever modern slavery ring uncovered in the UK’, questions how such wide-spread exploitation could be carried out in plain sight and what further action is needed to provide justice for the victims
‘Any lingering complacency after the 2007 bicentenary celebrations of the abolition of the English Slave Trade was misplaced’ said the Judge hearing the trial of traffickers in what has been described as the ‘largest ever modern slavery ring uncovered in the UK’.
Following two trials which concluded in February and June this year, 8 members of the criminal gang were sentenced collectively to more than 55 years in prison. The 400 plus victims were trafficked from Poland to the UK to work for a pittance and live in squalid conditions; many had been vulnerable for one reason or another – perhaps homeless or unemployed – and found themselves in the UK exposed to even greater vulnerability to exploitation.
In Poland, they had been approached and promised work at a recycling plant for a decent wage and accommodation, but instead, were transported to houses often with no heating, running water or cooking facilities. Many of them lived up to four people to a room on dirty mattresses and had to access food banks and soup kitchens for food.
Work was found for them by the criminal gang through employment agencies at recycling plants, poultry factories, farms and a fencing company. Incredibly, one of the traffickers worked for an agency and used her position to sign up dozens of victims for work. Bank accounts were opened in their names but controlled by the traffickers. They were paid unpredictable sums of money; some reported being paid as little as 50p a day and others £20 a week. They were driven from where they slept to where they worked. They were followed, threatened, abused.
DCI Nick Dale, Senior Investigating Officer, said that victims were subjected to a ‘demi-life of misery and poverty’ and treated as ‘commodities’ purely for the greed of the traffickers.
It took the extraordinary work of a charity, Hope for Justice, to begin the dismantling of the web of exploitation; through outreach work and support, individuals started to come forward one after another to report the mistreatment. An extensive police investigation followed, which was described by the Judge as ‘meticulous’, and eventually convictions secured.
There will be no qualms about labelling the actions of the trafficking gang as abhorrent. And, hopefully, their convictions will bring some comfort to the victims.
But now is also the time to take stock and question: how this could happen in plain sight - in banks, employment agencies and places of work? It is clear that for years these traffickers exploited and profited with impunity. The boldness with which they constructed an audacious web of exploitation suggests that they did not believe there were mechanisms in place to stop them.
And we should make no mistake, while the scale of the exploitation may be unusual, trafficking of individuals for labour exploitation is widespread.
The focus up to now has rightly been on the criminal trial but investigations should not end there. Companies should not be able to profit from trafficking and modern slavery. It should not pay to turn a blind eye; accountability goes beyond the criminal gang. So far, the victims of these crimes may have some comfort in the form of the convictions of the perpetrators, but they have still not received the wages for the work they did or compensation for the hardships they endured.