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Police have arrested six people and rescued 12 others after dawn raids in Newcastle and Gateshead following claims that charity bag collectors were victims of modern slavery.
The investigation followed intelligence of a suspected Lithuanian organised crime group operating in a factory used for sorting clothes, supplied by men trafficked from eastern Europe who were distributing charity bags and collecting donated clothes.
It is thought the men worked through a third party across Newcastle.
The clothes processed through the factory were being sold overseas, with a cut of the proceeds going to charity, although it would be unaware that many of the employees are potential victims of slavery.
Northumbria Police are working closely with Newcastle City Council, Gateshead Council, HMRC, the National Crime Agency and a number of charities to gather intelligence on the group and its activities.
Superintendent Steve Barron, who is leading the operation, said that 12 people had been safeguarded.
He said: “We do not believe that any of the charities involved would know that those collecting their bags were potential victims of modern day slavery and human trafficking.”
The police believe that while the suspects ran a legitimate business, it was used as a front for criminal activity.
HMRC is also running a separate investigation to establish whether any of the proceeds from the business were reaching charities.
Alan Wheeler, director of Textile Recycling Association, said: “We are pleased to see that Northumbria Police and HMRC are taking this issue seriously. We have received reports in the past of clothing collectors employing exclusively eastern Europeans who speak little or no English and are therefore vulnerable to unscrupulous employers, as well as gangs who steal from clothing collection banks.
“We have heard anecdotally that people were living in the containers where they sort the clothing. In many cases we are also aware that these so-called charitable door-to-door clothing collectors are not bothering to apply for relevant licences which are required by law.”
Wheeler repeated his calls for a register of approved charitable door-to-door collectors to be established, which would require applicants to prove their professional and ethical standards, making it more difficult for unlawful collectors to trade.