THE scandal of the West Yorkshire bed company which employed dozens of trafficked Hungarian men as a slave workforce has led to a dramatic shake-up by three major high street retailers whose audits of the firm failed to spot anything amiss.
John Lewis, Next and Dunelm were all supplied with beds or mattresses either directly or through an intermediary by Dewsbury-based Kozee Sleep, whose owner Mohammed Rafiq was jailed today for human trafficking offences.
Prosecutors at Rafiq’s trial said the major retailers who used the firm as a supplier carried out regular ‘ethical audits’ before the police began an investigation, but that “nothing untoward” was found.
In reality large numbers of Hungarian men were being employed as a “slave workforce” at Kozee Sleep and its subsidiary Layzee Sleep in Batley, paid as little as £10 a day. Local victims of human trafficking survived on scraps of food, with up to 42 men found living in a two-bedroom house.
Detective Inspector Andy Leonard of West Yorkshire Police’s Human Trafficking team, which carried out the investigation into the supply of slave labour in the county, said the audit process used by major firms “changed and adapted really quickly” as a result of the case.
He said staff who now audit suppliers on behalf of the three major firms are now looking for signs of forced labour or trafficking instead of just for “health and safety issues” and the quality of products.
Mr Leonard said: “They reacted and adapted very quickly because they have got negative press. I think initially they thought slave labour just happened abroad. They were as shocked as us to find out it was happening right under our feet.
“One of our detectives is still being requested to do presentations to some of the companies, so their front-line staff know what to look for and can learn from our experiences.”
Rafiq’s human trafficking conviction, the first for a company owner in the UK, follows that of Hungarian men Ferenc Illes and Janos Orsos, who were jailed after being found guilty of supplying Kozee Sleep with slave labour.
The firms supplied by Kozee Sleep were said to be “horrified” to learn their products were put together using slave labour, though one company fears the hidden nature of the crime means other similar cases may not be spotted in future.
A spokesman for Next, which was supplied with mattresses by Hick Lane Bedding, a related company to Kozee Sleep, until mid-2014, said it now “trained its internal auditors specifically in the area of recognising the physical symptoms of modern slavery”.
He said the firm had “used this experience to understand better the criminal activities and mind-set involved - and has developed its processes to avoid this criminality being repeated elsewhere”.
He added: “Next has also increased the amount of auditing it does with workers ‘off-site’ i.e. by visiting them away from their workplaces, away from the ‘glare’ or influence of their employers and often even in their own homes.
“This is all in an attempt by Next to always seek out and always get closer to ‘the truth’ of what is, or might be, occurring within its supplier base.”
Dunelm said it had strengthened its code of conduct and taken steps “to further reduce the risk of the practice occurring in our supply chain”.
A spokesman said: “This includes tightening our audit regime so that all suppliers are audited by an external recognised expert firm before they can be signed up as a supplier.
“We also have programmes in place to raise awareness of the issue throughout the business and our supplier base.
“We are confident that our measures are robust but the Kozee Sleep experience illustrates that, despite everyone’s best efforts, organised criminal activity can be very hard to detect.
“We would therefore welcome a coordinated industry-wide approach to eradicating what is an appalling and completely unacceptable practice.”
John Lewis said that as soon as evidence of “illegal and unethical practices” came to light it ended the contract with the factory and “co-operated fully with the police”.
A spokesman said: “John Lewis takes an active role in working with specialist human rights NGOs to increase our understanding of these issues, and we have added a greater emphasis on the issue of worker exploitation and trafficking to our audit process.”
He added that it was working with other high street brands on a scheme where detailed training is given to suppliers on the latest legislation and factory assessments were carried out.
The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC) says it will become “more and more difficult for traffickers to operate” and there will be “many more” of this type of conviction to come, since new anti-slavery legislation was introduced in July.
Under the new laws, businesses with a turnover of £36 million, such as Next Plc and John Lewis Partnership, must publicly state what measures they are taking to eradicate slavery from their supply chains.
A former senior police officer, Allan Doherty, who helped uncover the trafficking ring in West Yorkshire, said the exploitation may not have happened if these changes had been made earlier.