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Workers as slaves: time for everyone to be alert

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What would you do if, later today, you discovered that health and safety rules were being flouted on a regular basis inside your company? Or if you became aware of a culture of bullying and har­assment towards colleagues at your organisation?

What would your response be if you witnessed someone being discriminated against because of their ethnicity, reli­gion or gender?

You’d act. And you would do so not simply because all three of those things are illegal and the law demands it, but because they are morally reprehensible and you have a duty not to look the other way.

So why do so many people and organ­isations turn a blind eye to modern slavery and forced labour? I suspect it is a combination of things: perhaps they are in denial about it happening on their doorstep, are afraid to confront it for fear of their business being caught up in an investigation or, more damn­ingly, they are aware but choose to say nothing because it is commercially con­venient.

Research indicates that the recycling sector has been infiltrated by slavers and exploit­ers

Whatever the reason, the fact is they are all excuses, and they are excuses that will not wash any longer in the eyes of the law. Modern slavery is abhorrent, and has been described by the prime minister as “the greatest human rights issue of our time”. Yet it is happening right now in businesses up and down the country.

Thousands of people are being forced to work for little or no pay, often in appalling conditions and with the threat of violence hanging over them if they step out of line. Much of it is con­trolled by organised crime gangs who have links to drug smuggling, guns and violence. They know full well the enor­mous profits that can be made from using people as a commodity. And, until recently, the risks to them were rela­tively low.

Imagine the police response to a van being stopped on the motorway which was found to contain drugs or firearms. Those involved would undoubt­edly face long prison sentences. Now, picture the same van being stopped, only this time the driver is carrying half a dozen people.

The chances of him being arrested are much less unless there are firm sus­picions that something was amiss, and the van would be allowed to go on its way. Except the people inside may well have been trafficked into the UK and are being forced to work.

That is precisely why organised crime gangs have moved into human traffick­ing, modern slavery and labour exploitation: it is lucrative and the risks are low.

But, thankfully, that is beginning to change. The criminal justice system is rising to the challenge of the threat posed by modern slavery and is starting to fight back.

There are estimated to be 10,000-13,000 slaves in the UK but it is likely that there are many more. Slavery and labour exploitation has infiltrated legit­imate supply chains, in retail, construc­tion, care homes and the hotel and hospitality sector. And, yes, it is also happening right now within the recy­cling industry.

How do we know? Well, the Gang­masters Licensing Authority (GLA) has carried out risk analysis of labour exploitation across the UK. Its research indicates that the recycling sector has been infiltrated by slavers and exploit­ers. Many of the victims are eastern Europeans trafficked into the UK and then forced to work.

If you have never stopped to think about what life is like for someone who has been forced into labour, let me enlighten you.

A few months ago five members of a Plymouth family, all of Czech origin, were jailed for a total of 20 years after being convicted of human trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation. Their victims were all Czech nationals who worked long hours at local car washes and factories in jobs organised by the family.

In return for their labour they received the equivalent of pocket money from their wages. One victim received £20-£30 per week from a £250 wage on the pretext that it was expensive to live in the UK. The men were forced to live in conditions well below acceptable standards within the family homes, such as sleeping on the floor, in garages, in corridors or in a cupboard under the stairs and with inadequate bathroom facilities.

sleeping badly

sleeping badly

They were forced into domestic ser­vitude to keep the family homes clean and made to undertake demeaning tasks. One victim was forced to spend six to seven hours cleaning a car with a small cloth and a baby bath, while another was made to cut the grass with a vegetable knife. At one of the addresses, a sign was posted demanding victims pay £1 to use the toilet.

One victim, a 57-year-old man, was trafficked from Prague into Plymouth by a woman pretending to be his girl­friend. She left after three days and he was taken in by one of the family mem­bers before being put to work at a meat processing factory.

You have a moral and ethical responsi­bility to prevent people from being forced to work

Colleagues were so concerned about his appearance that they fed him with sandwiches from the vending machine at the end of the day. He slept on the floor at one of the addresses and received just £30 of his wages per week. He was not allowed to use the family bathroom and was forced to go to the toilet in the garden or use local cafés.

This is the reality of modern slavery. It threatens the lives of thousands of people – and for those legitimate busi­nesses who profit from it.

It took the deaths of 23 cockle-pick­ers in Morecambe Bay in 2004 to focus the national mind on the costs of severe worker exploitation. The tragedy on that freezing February night brought about new legislation that resulted in the creation of the GLA.

It is now being given sweeping new powers and a broadened remit to investigate all forms of labour exploitation. In 2016 it was renamed the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), and will have spe­cialist officers with police-style powers of arrest. For the first time it will look into other labour market offences such as failure to pay the national minimum wage and breaches of the Employment Agency Act.

I am confident the GLAA will have a major impact on disrupting and dismantling modern slavery networks that have established themselves within the UK.

In time, the Modern Slavery Act will become as familiar and important to employers as both the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Equality Act in ensuring their businesses fully com­ply with the law and the welfare of employees is looked after. But enforce­ment alone will not defeat the slavers and traffickers.

The only way we will rid ourselves of this repugnant practice is for it to become socially and morally unaccept­able. And that is where the readers of MRW come in.

Whether you are the owner of a small firm, a director at one of the UK’s big­gest construction companies, a council recycling officer or someone who works on the fringes of the recycling sector, you have a moral and ethical responsi­bility to prevent people from being forced to work.

The GLAA has produced guidance that can help to spot the signs of labour exploitation. You can also learn more about the GLAA by visiting its website www.gla.gov.uk or call it free and confi­dentially on 0800 432 0804 to report any suspicions or knowledge about labour exploitation.

Operation of the GLAA

Following the adoption of the UK Immigration Act 2016, the GLAA was given new powers, including the possibility to investigate modern slavery offences related to labour exploitation. These powers now apply across the entire UK labour market.

In January 2017, it signed a letter of intent with the International Labour Organisation to strengthen collaboration on tackling abusive recruitment practices that trick workers into forced labour. This co-operation is expected to contribute to raising awareness on the Modern Slavery Act’s transparency provisions which require companies to ensure that human trafficking is not taking place in any of its supply chains.

Paul Broadbent is Chief executive of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority

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