The waste management industry knows it has a problem with slavery and worker exploitation. Apart from the fact it is a problem across every business that uses low-skilled shift workers – from hotels to fruit picking – there have been high-profile police raids at recycling sites in the West Midlands and the north-east.
Hope for Justice (HfJ), a charity that works with the police to support victims, estimates that around 70% of cases it sees involve exploited workers being placed at a recycling site at some point. MRW’s annual Industry Insight survey revealed that 8% of respondents believed they had witnessed a possible case in the past year.
Although there have been efforts behind the scenes at many waste management companies to raise awareness of the issue, there has not been the kind of public-facing initiatives pursued by the construction and agriculture industries.
But it now seems that businesses are at last willing to take a stance, with Viridor parent firm Pennon and Biffa signing up to a new HfJ venture called the Slave-Free Alliance (SFA). There are indications others are set to follow, but the industry as a whole still has a long way to go if it is to present a united front.
For construction, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Building Research Establishment have both set up symposiums and led on the issue. Waste management associations and professional bodies have not.
The SFA was set up around six months ago to give businesses access to expert criminal investigators, many of whom are ex-police, to help root out possible incidents of forced labour and deal with them. The organisation says many victims are either unwilling or unable to go to the police, and the need for an alternative is “distinct and urgent”.
As a business arm of HfJ, profits are ploughed back into the charity.
A Viridor spokesperson said staff are encouraged to identify and report any potential breaches of its anti-slavery and human trafficking policy, reinforced by training programmes and monitoring of suppliers.
She added: “The company has also developed a closer relationship with the main provider of agency workers as part of robust measures and an increased focus on this issue. Viridor believes the expertise and guidance that the SFA can offer will further empower our employees to be ever vigilant.”
Viridor stakeholders, including suppliers, are required to sign up to a code of conduct.
Biffa has set up similar systems for staff and suppliers. Melanie Flogdell, divisional HR director, said that every business had a responsibility to help eliminate labour exploitation.
Paul Callum was appointed director of the SFA in July. During his time in the police, he came face to face with the perpetrators of modern slavery offences. He knows how they operate and how the crime can be kept hidden. He thinks that businesses going public on their anti-slavery efforts is essential.
Callum joined Derbyshire Constabulary in 1986 and rose to the rank of detective superintendent. He was a senior investigator leading on homicide, serious and organised crime, and human trafficking, and was head of the public protection department.
In 2014 he was on the investigation team which arrested a gang in Derby that trafficked vulnerable people from the Czech Republic to make them work at car washes and factories for pittance. Two brothers, Igor and Marek Marcin, were jailed for 92 months in total after pleading guilty.
Callum says overcoming inertia in taking action on labour abuse within an organisation “is a journey”.
“It starts with raising awareness and getting people to accept it’s happening. I talk about it being similar to domestic violence – you don’t see it, but you know it’s going on. You have to search and look beyond the obvious.”
Labour exploitation is increasingly becoming part of a company’s corporate sustainability reporting duties. Organisations can be swamped with the bewildering number of risks a company has to deal with and plan for.
To get over this obstacle, the SFA targets the executive level team to assess what the real commitment is in providing the resources. For Callum, there is an argument that labour exploitation should be reported as a matter of course in the same way that health and safety is. It is likely that every waste management company will be affected by an accidental injury at some point, and it is something the industry talks openly about.
Callum said the waste industry was “starting to make some good inroads”, but companies may be reluctant to put their heads above the parapet because of fears about the reaction in the media if they find incidents of labour abuse.
“You’ve got to get on the front foot. You have a plan in place of who is going to lead the media response, and you have to see it as an opportunity to say ‘a vulnerable person has been identified, this means systems are working’.
“It starts with raising awareness and getting people to accept it’s happening. I talk about it being similar to domestic violence – you don’t see it, but you know it’s going on.”
“In the 30 years I was in policing, it went from being very defensive and not talking to the press and has now turned full circle. I think some industries need to catch up on that.”
Knowing what exploitation looks like is an important first step, but not a straightforward one. Typically, workers are lured to the UK with promises of employment but end up in debt to a gang and housed in overcrowded and often vile accommodation.
Callum said: “People have thought, ‘well, we treat our staff right’ and, of course, most businesses do. But a lot of what happens to victims is outside of the work environment when they go home afterwards.
“This is why worker interviews are so important. You really have to understand your workforce, and I don’t think a lot of organisations do. Who else do they work for, and who else is living in that house with them?
“It’s not rocket science. Where are the prime areas – large conurbations with cheap housing and multiple occupancy? If you look on a big company’s pay day, which is usually on a Thursday or Friday, are large amounts of money being taken out within half an hour? Perpetrators hold the victims’ cash cards. It’s just understanding what you’ve got in front of you.
“There has to be collaboration between an industry and the recruitment agency.”
The SFA’s investigators look out for groups of people from the same village or town and family base, because gangs often use a personal connection with their victims in order to coerce them. This might include veiled threats such as “how is that pretty sister of yours – it would be a shame if something happened to her” and “is your mother still living on her own?”
“Perpetrators are very manipulative,” said Callum. “They are confidence tricksters. They build up people’s vulnerabilities – the need for money, somewhere to live, a lack of English – to their own advantage. There have been some extreme cases of violence, but mostly it is more subtle control.
“What we realise now is that when pursuing a case, you’ve got to look at the other end [the country of origin of the victims] as well. You might be getting to grips with victims and offenders here, but there is a lot of influence with witnesses in another country.
“The case I dealt with in Derby, out of 12 witnesses there was only one person who reported seeing any violence. The offender was a big guy – the threat of violence was enough.
“People who say, ‘why don’t they just leave, there’s no violence, there are no chains’ – they don’t understand.”
Some victims do not even realise they are being taken advantage of, and that their wages and living standards are not legal. Perpetrators will present their actions as doing the workers a favour by providing housing and transport.
“You often cannot look at a victim and say they’re definitely a victim, and you cannot look at offenders and say they’re definitely offenders. It is about control,” said Callum.
There are local multi-agency modern slavery partnerships across the UK attached to regional organised crime units, and Callum advises businesses to find out who the lead contact is and get in touch. These partnerships include police and representatives from the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority, housing authorities and others.
“If something happens, you can ring the partnership and say ‘we are worried about this house, this person’s activity’,” he said.
The SFA has so far signed up about 35 firms, including some ‘huge’ companies in the FTSE 100 and 250. But its services are on offer for any size of business, including a number of ‘one-man bands’ who have also joined.
Callum warned that incidents of labour exploitation are “probably hell of a lot more” than official figures reveal. Continuing the analogy, only around 10% of domestic violence victims report abuse.
Realising the effect on those being exploited is a sobering affair. MRW has previously run a story detailing the experience of a victim, ‘Piotr’, who described working long hours sorting material at a recycling centre only to have his wages taken away and being left living in squalid conditions.
Callum said of one victim from his 2014 investigation, who had not seen his wife and children for two and a half years: “It brings tears to your eyes.”
- Official estimates are that 13,000 people are victims within the UK, but many believe the real figure to be far higher.
- In 2017, a total of 5,145 potential victims were referred to authorities, a 35% increase on 2016. This counts only those who come to the attention of the authorities.
- The most vulnerable group is migrant workers in low-skilled shift roles, who come to the UK most often perfectly legally.
- Hope for Justice has estimated that victims in around 70% of cases they deal with are employed at a recycling facility at some point – on a par with nail bars and car washes.