“Many, many victims.” That’s what a judge said in a modern day slavery case involving Polish nationals being abused, degraded and forced to work at recycling facilities for less than £1 a day.
The waste management and recycling industry seems to have been caught in the headlights following the prosecution at Teesside Crown Court, which saw four men jailed for a total of 32 years for their role in exploiting labourers. There has been very little in the way of public discussion of the case.
A further related prosecution involving five defendants has been heard at Leeds Crown Court, and more prosecutions are expected. It is not the first time the industry has been directly affected by modern day slavery. Four people were arrested after police raided two West Midlands scrap yards last year, with 12 eastern European people thought to have been trafficked.
MRW has learned that the number of victims dealt with by some anti-slavery agencies at waste processing plants is comparable with those from car washes and unskilled agriculture. A victim might also be switched from one workplace to another, so may well have worked in recycling during some point during their ordeal.
The effect of forced labour on victims is truly horrific. We learned from the north-east case that workers resorted to taking discarded sweets from the recycling conveyor belt because they did not have enough money to buy food. They were left homeless and subjected to violence and threats.
This could be just the tip of the iceberg: modern day slavery has the potential to be the biggest thing to hit the industry for quite some time. It is certainly an issue that just about every business will have to face up to sooner or later – and those that are unprepared could find their reputations in ruins.
It is understandable that companies have been reluctant to put their corporate heads above the parapet. Many firms, and particularly those with long supply chains, may fear that, if they made a bold public statement, they could be embarrassed later if a slavery prosecution revealed that one of their facilities or a supplier had been involved.
But might this attitude end up in a conspiracy of silence, where crucial issues are not discussed or shared?
Neil Wain: “It is important for companies that are engaged in this sector to ensure they have robust policies and procedures in place, especially around recruitment, to avoid infiltration by traffickers.”
From the point of view of the police, prosecutors and other agencies battling against modern day slavery, this would not be helpful. The Crown Prosecution Service has told MRW it was keen to speak to the industry in the wake of the current wave of prosecutions. Other agencies also want to engage: the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority made such a plea in the pages of MRW in May, before the Teesside case broke.
Neil Wain, international programme director at anti-slavery charity Hope for Justice, and a former assistant chief constable at Greater Manchester Police, told MRW in the wake of the north-east case: “This indicates once again the risk that is evident within the waste, recycling and environmental processing sector. It is important for companies to ensure they have robust policies and procedures in place, especially around recruitment, to avoid infiltration by traffickers.
“Hope for Justice can offer specialised advice and training on keeping a business safe from modern slavery. We have been closely involved in this case, and are able to offer support and guidance for victims and businesses that might find themselves in a similar position.”
Although there has been little public response from within the industry, behind the scenes companies are certainly taking the matter seriously. Suez is one of a number of waste and recycling firms to use a training scheme run by Hope for Justice to help managers spot the signs of forced labour.
Hope for Justice also works with employment agency Smart Solutions, which supplies workers to the waste sector, to train staff and engage with the supply chain. The charity also attended the company’s staff conference in 2015.
Compliance specialist Valpak has developed a secure online portal for its customers to help them manage key data and identify higher risk suppliers.
Police services are urging companies to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the community to help them identify trafficking. In the area of recycling, this could involve more stringent checks on workers’ individual documents – in the north-east, victims were denied their passports and other documents.
To tackle abuse effectively, the industry will need to face up to the dangers and be open and honest about its record. Modern slavery is an issue MRW will keep returning to.