‘We must get a grip on forced labour menace in region’

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Efforts to tackle human trafficking and forced labour are growing in Yorkshire, but a lack of understanding of the problem means hundreds of victims are going unheeded. Rob Parsons and Laura Bowyer report on the trade in human misery.

THE growing threat of modern-day slavery is not just a problem in Yorkshire’s cities but also needs to be stamped out in remote rural areas of the region, a leading expert has warned.

Professor Gary Craig, who has co-authored a major study into forced labour, has called for better Government data on the number of people being exploited across the UK.

The professor of social justice at Durham University, who also sits on the North Yorkshire police and crime panel, fears workplace enforcement agencies are now doing fewer inspections, becoming focussed on only the most serious offences rather than tackling all types of serious labour exploitation.

His research shows that across the country there are at least 4,000 people subjected to forced labour in the UK and 10,000 victims of human trafficking, with a probable overlap of 12,000 modern-day slaves.

Based on Yorkshire’s 5.3 million population, this means there must be an estimated 1,000 victims in the region at any one time, though barely 100 are detected by local agencies each year.

This year, two Hungarian men were jailed for their part in a trafficking ring based in Bradford, Dewsbury and Wakefield. Janos Orsos and Ferenc Illes lured people to West Yorkshire before putting them to work for as little as £20 a week.

But Professor Craig said: “In Leeds and Bradford people need to understand this is not an issue that is just to do with industrial and post-industrial cities, it affects East Yorkshire and North Yorkshire. You can’t just assume this is a city problem.”

Detective Superintendent Steve Smith, North Yorkshire Police’s lead on modern slavery, said men from Vietnam and China had been found growing cannabis in the county in recent years.

He said: “The guidance is now that the police should view them as possible victims and not necessarily as offenders. If two or three Vietnamese people turn up, as once happened near Northallerton, in a barn, growing cannabis, you have to ask the obvious question, how did they get here, particularly when the people who own the land are from Yorkshire.

“The gardeners and landowners in that case went to court. As society becomes more alert to the plight of these people you would expect such an investigation to take a slightly different course.

“There was a case in December, a man found on the A1 at Wetherby, he was walking on the hard shoulder. When officers found him, they said he had been brought into the UK straight into Leeds. He had been the subject of labour abuse and exploitation.”

Though trafficking is most often associated with sexual exploitation, Professor Craig said growing numbers of vulnerable victims are being trafficked so they can be forced into work.

There are also thousands of who have not been trafficked and are in the country for a legitimate job, only to find themselves the victims of illegal exploitation.

He said: “They could be English nationals who could be trafficked within the country, or it could be people who are trafficked here from Poland and come here for a legitimate job, they have come with a legal work permit and a legal right to be in this country.

“We need to have a very clear understanding of how people are trafficked, what are the conditions of where that happens and how do people go into forced labour. We have people who are extremely vulnerable, they might not have a good grasp of the English language, they might not have a good grasp of their rights, they might not be aware of health and safety and employment rights.

“They may be frightened of the police because of their experience in another country, and may be reluctant to contact police. They may be people with learning difficulties or something else that makes them more vulnerable to exploitation. There is no single template, the single issue we need to look for is vulnerability.”

One victim of human trafficking found himself working for a pittance in West Yorkshire after being flown into the country. This is his story.

“I found an advert on a website for a job in England. Unemployment was very high where I was living so I was looking online for work.

“The advert said ‘I am looking for people to work in England, travel and accommodation will be provided and the wage was £160 per week. You don’t need to speak the language’.

“We were flown over and taken to the house we would be living in. The state of the house was horrendous. It was dirty and smelly and the people looked like zombies. I could smell marijuana.

“He told us to sit down and wait and someone else was going to pick us up and take us to the place where we were going to stay. Me and my friend were growing more suspicious and decided that if it wasn’t what we were expecting then we should get out.

“We got to the house and the people there looked really awful. We were told the next day we would be told the details of the work. We started to talk to the other people in the house, they said for a least two months you won’t get paid a penny.

“If you complain to the trafficker, then he will deduct even more money or beat you up as well. They said if we worked in a different factory where we could earn more, then the trafficker’s commission would go up.

“We would also be expected to work weekends which we wouldn’t get paid for. These people in the house said that after paying the trafficker his commission we will probably have £30 per week, I said how can I support my family back home?

“They laughed and said they all had families back home but after they moved to the UK they got divorced and lost everything back home.

“I decided to seek help when I was out of options – I tried everything to get out of my situation but it was incredibly difficult because I did not speak English very well.

“I have a really good relationship with my wife and children, and so I didn’t want to end up being homeless and just drinking and being on the streets – I wanted to be with my family.

“I went to the police, and they recommended that we ring Hope for Justice. The charity has supported me with interpretation, housing, legal help, and finding a job.

“They have also helped me to furnish my house and helped with other difficult situations.

“I would advise people to go to Hope for Justice – they are the only way to survive in this country if you’ve been through this experience and don’t speak English.

“They make an enormous effort to help and give you a lot of their time. I’m very proud of the organisation for their hard work.

“I feel really positive about the future now that I have a job and my family are here with me.”

Hope For Justice is described as an “anti-human trafficking organisation working to uncover and abolish the hidden crime of modern-day slavery. For more information about its work visit hopeforjustice.org.uk.

An operation last year in Leeds saw 17 men, women and children rescued from exploitation - though 33 others preferred to stay where they were.

The obstacle encountered by police, council and health officials, working with charities Hope For Justice and the Salvation Army, shows clearly the difficulty of tackling the gangs behind modern-day slavery.

Without the co-operation of victims, many of who view the authorities with distrust because of experiences in their own countries, police and prosecutors find it hard to get a conviction for human trafficking.

It means the best way forward can be to take the “pragmatic decision” to prosecute for another appropriate offence, even when the circumstances suggest trafficking has been involved.

Steve Smith of North Yorkshire Police says: “Carrying out warrants at a brothel allows you to take control of the situation and give that victim, that working girl, the opportunity to seek medical care, to be listened to, to get them the support they might need.”

At a recent public meeting, North Yorkshire Police chief constable Dave Jones said his force would use the ‘Al Capone approach’ to convict the gangs “for whatever crime we can”. This refers to the conviction of the notorious Chicago gangster who was prosecuted for tax evasion in 1931.

In Leeds, a new strategy, to tackle the problem will be drafted by November. West Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner and Hope For Justice recently revealed plans to create an anti-trafficking network after receiving £200,000 of funding.

Detective Chief Inspector Andy Williams, lead for human trafficking at West Yorkshire Police, said his force had invested heavily in training. He said: “The notion that offences akin to slavery are taking place in 21st century Britain is quite simply unacceptable and we are working to detect, arrest and prosecute those behind this.”

Anyone who fears they are a victim of trafficking of have information should contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

Ministers hope the Modern Slavery Bill, introduced in the Queen’s Speech, will provide “stronger tools to stamp out modern slavery, ensure slave drivers can receive suitably severe punishments and enhance protection of and support for victims”.

It includes changes such as making the reporting of human trafficking a legal duty, introducing an Anti-Slavery Commissioner and increasing sentences for those found guilty of trafficking people into the country, often for prostitution or illicit work.

Experts say that if passed, the bill will be the first of its kind in Europe and one of the first attempts globally to specifically address the ongoing issue of slavery and trafficking in the 21st century. It is expected to be passed before the 2015 General Election.

But it has encountered criticism, with the Forced Labour Monitoring Group, a group of academics and policy-makers, fearing it does not put enough emphasis on forced labour when trafficking is not involved.

Separately, the Law Society says it has concerns “including the lack of adequate safeguarding of survivors of slavery and trafficking”.

The society’s criticisms centre on a lack of clarity about offences, fears some criminal activity will not be covered, and that the proposed Anti-slavery Commissioner will not be effective without being independent from the Home Secretary.

President of the Law Society, Andrew Caplen, said: “The Law Society applauds the government in taking seriously the ongoing problem of modern slavery, and their plans to address the issue, but has reservations about the effectiveness of the proposals.

“With the British government leading the way on modern slavery legislation, it is of paramount importance that the Bill safeguards victims effectively and sets an example in this field.”