Shackling the gang-masters

How West Midlands Police are turning the tables on slave drivers.

A woman forced into domestic servitude in a large household, working 18 hour days for a pittance, and groups of men carrying out back-breaking work in the fields and lining the pockets of gang-masters.

These are not accounts taken from pre-slavery abolition annals but from 21st Century Britain – and right here in the West Midlands.

Modern day slavery takes the form of traffickers promising attractive salaries and a new life abroad − but for many lured to the West Midlands they find the reality much different.

In the first three months of this year West Midlands Police referred 27 suspected slavery victims to the UK Human Trafficking Centre − only 10 less than the whole of 2014 − and heard accounts of forced labour, squalid conditions and intimidation.

Detective Chief Inspector Tom Chisholm leads the force’s response to tackling traffickers and, most recently, that involved an early morning knock on the door at two terraced houses in the Black Country…

It’s 4.30am and West Midlands Police officers are joined by colleagues from the National Crime Agency, Red Cross, slavery charity Hope for Justice, interpreters and housing officials outside two addresses a short walk from Lye High Street. Their exterior is in keeping with any other terrace in the town but behind closed doors police intelligence suggests they are home to a group of eastern European nationals being abused for forced labour.

An hour later and fifty Romanians, including six children (the youngest 18 months old) and eight women are taken to a reception centre where they are offered food and clothing − but perhaps more importantly a confidential ear to report any offences.

“In one three-bed property we found 40 people… some were sleeping in the kitchen, some in the bathroom,” said Dudley sergeant Marc Butler, who ran the 28th August operation. “There were exposed wires and no smoke alarms; our fire colleagues said it was a disaster waiting to happen so a prohibition notice has been served that effectively closes it down until it’s made safe.

“Three Alpha Males − men suspected of running the homes, often with an atmosphere of fear − were held at the addresses to enable our officers and support workers to speak to the people at the reception centre. Sometimes even just the sight of these enforcers can have an intimidating effect so it’s important to get them out of the way so others are given the confidence to speak freely.”

A 23 year old man was interviewed under caution by investigators from the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) on suspicion of siphoning off wages, while work documentation linking the people to a farm in Worcestershire was seized for further enquiries.

The women and children were rehoused by local authority; the men declined offers of support.

“Most of the cases we encounter are eastern European men subjected to forced labour in construction or agriculture,” added Det Chief Insp Chisholm. “We have a steady stream of people turning up at police stations, some displaying injuries, reporting to have escaped slave-masters or been dumped in the street when work dries up.

“Invariably they will have been approached in their home country with offers of attractive salaries working in the UK… agreements are usually struck to sacrifice part of their wages in return for accommodation, transport and living expenses. On the face of it the deal sounds fair − but on arrival they are sent to work, paid far less than promised, charged exorbitant rents, and threatened with violence if they protest or try to leave. Traffickers also withhold migrants’ passports and manage bank accounts in their names to siphon off money and max-out credit cards.

“They are effectively imprisoned in the addresses… we’ve also heard from complainants saying they were ‘fined’ thousands of pounds if they lost their job and so become indebted to the traffickers.

“Other cases involve women trafficked to work in the sex industry or young Vietnamese people to cannabis farms. But one recurring challenge is that these people often don’t consider themselves as victims, may be earning decent cash sums, and are reluctant to speak out.”

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 made slavery a specific offence this summer. People traffickers now face the prospect of life jail sentences, while large firms will soon have to show they are working to ensure their business and supply chains are free from slavery.

West Midlands Police has a specialist group working within Force CID to manage slavery investigations and plays a lead role in the Regional Anti-Trafficking Network alongside other agencies. Anyone identified as a potential victim is referred to the National Human Trafficking Centre for an assessment − and if deemed a genuine case West Midlands Police, working with the Salvation Army, ensures they are cared for in temporary accommodation outside the region, away from the clutches of traffickers, while detectives probe the circumstances.

Det Chief Insp Chisholm, added: “We’ll push for prosecutions but even if the evidence isn’t there, or the victims don’t want to press charges, we can still help by getting them repatriated back home or directing them to support services here if they have a legal right to stay.

“As a force we are much better at spotting the signs of slavery and specialist training has been given to more than 2,000 staff. In the past, reports of groups of eastern European men coming and going from a property may have been wrongly labelled as an anti-social behaviour issue when, in reality, trafficking could be the root problem. There is on-going disruption work, with officers going into hostels and properties intelligence suggests could be run by traffickers, and the force has conducted several operations aimed at netting traffickers and freeing victims.”

One such push − codenamed Operation Fort − has seen the arrest of five Polish nationals suspected of being part of an organised trafficking gang bringing people from their home country to the West Midlands with false promises of well-paid work.

Men aged 22, 26, 39 and 49, plus a 44-year-old woman, remain on police bail while detectives investigate claims made by around thirty people that they were worked as slaves and threatened with violence − but it’s suspected they may have exploited up to 100 people over the last two years. The force is looking to secure Slavery & Trafficking Risk Orders on the group that would ban them from arranging travel to the UK for other people − or from facilitating accommodation, work or bank accounts for third parties − plus conditions forcing them to register address changes with the police.

Detective Inspector Nick Dale runs Operation Fort. He added: “Such operations are challenging as we regularly come up against victims who’ve been brainwashed by traffickers into thinking police will prosecute them. They may have misplaced loyalty or debt bondage to traffickers, or a general fear of reprisals should they speak out against their treatment.

“Information provided by victims tends to be very limited and makes it hard, often impossible, to locate addresses, places of work, or offenders. Traffickers starve them of information: they will only leave their living quarters to work and, together with language barriers, means they are left trying to describe landmarks or streets to officers.

“We’ve had cases where officers have spent hours driving around with the complainant in the hope they might be able to point out where they have been kept… but more often than not it’s a fruitless mission.

“It’s crucial for us to gain the trust and co-operation of victims… at a very basic level we protect victims and get them to a place of safety away from the influence of traffickers.”

West Midlands Police also works closely with Hope for Justice, an anti-slavery charity that launched a base in the region in May 2014 and last year rescued 68 people. It provides important community intelligence to police and acts to build victims’ trust and confidence in the authorities.

Ben Cooley, CEO of Hope for Justice, said: “We’ve had examples of people being forced into labour, passed between trafficking groups while here in the UK, and being paid just five pounds for an eight-hour day.

“One recent case saw a woman from the Czech Republic lured to Birmingham by a man using false details and photo on a dating website. On arrival she realised she’d been duped but spoke no English and didn’t know who to turn to for help. The trafficker applied for benefits in her name, pocketed the payments, forced her into domestic servitude, and fed her on scraps. After five months of slavery she bumped into another Czech speaker on a rare outing; they alerted Hope for Justice, we helped her escape and started the UK human trafficking referral process.”

Hope for Justice − − can be contacted on 0845 519 7402, or to report suspicions of forced labour or human trafficking call West Midlands Police in confidence on the 101 number.