West Yorkshire Police has secured the co-operation of authorities in Poland to enforce pioneering court orders stopping traffickers from employing low-paid workers or organising their accommodation in their home country after their prison term ends.
The force has already achieved a ten-year slavery trafficking prevention order against David Zielinski, a key member of a ruthless slavery gang that trafficked vulnerable victims to Bradford to plunder their pay packets.
And it is pressing ahead with plans to get more of the orders, brought in as part of the Modern Slavery Act which became the first legislation of its type since the days of William Wilbeforce when it was passed into law two years ago.
But it is feared that Brexit could put such arrangements at risk in future, as the UK’s exit from the European Union will stop police forces working in the same way with Eastern European countries.
The head of West Yorkshire’s dedicated human trafficking unit has revealed that the force is appealing against the four year jail term given to Zielinski, “an able and willing lieutenant” for the family firm ‘Zielinski and Sons’ that trawled the streets of Poland to find poor and desperate people to exploit.
The number of modern slavery cases being uncovered in the region is on the rise, with a high proportion being brought over from Poland to work in poor conditions or Romanians tricked into sexual exploitation.
Some of those forced into sex work are reluctant to co-operate with authorities as they are still earning more than they would have done in their home countries, it is feared.
Detective Chief Inspector Warren Stevenson, who leads the West Yorkshire unit, said: “You have this issue that they are prepared to do it, they believe there is nothing wrong in it, they have been brought into this, and they have an element of freedom about their movement, which causes some issues for the investigation.
“But it is all do-able, we have just got to understand how to investigate, prove it, and protect them, and educate them that they are victims of human trafficking, rather than criminalising them.”
He said his team had been invited by the UK Ambassador to Bulgaria to do a workshop with Eastern European agencies about the nature of modern slavery in their countries, with the aim of stopping vulnerable people falling victim to traffickers.
West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson said the force was at the cutting edge of efforts to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking, and he was trying to encourage other PCCs to include it in their long-term plans so local forces could be held to account.
He said: “Part of the picture is that it is linked to organised criminality. Sadly the trafficking of human beings is seen as more lucrative than drugs and illegal substances in many parts of the world.”
He said he was concerned that the links established with other European law enforcement agencies, such as Europol, might not be maintained once the UK leaves the European Union.
Passed into law on March 26, 2015, the Modern Slavery Act introduced two new orders placing restrictions on those convicted of or involved in modern slavery offences, as well as mechanisms for seizing traffickers’ assets.
Businesses with a turnover of £36m or more have to make an annual statement setting out what they have done to tackle any slave and child labour in their supply chains.
In recent days, flowers have been planted by anti-slavery campaigners at sites across the North, including an event at York St John University, where modern slavery roses, described as a “beautiful floribunda peach-coloured tea rose”, were laid to commemorate the plight of the thousands of people still in forms of slavery across the UK.
Gary Craig, Professor Emeritus of Social Justice at the University of Hull, said: “Modern slavery is a hidden crime because, except in a very few countries, it is illegal to traffic human beings for sexual purposes, to exploit them severely in forced labour conditions, to use children to work in harsh conditions and so on.
“This means it is often difficult to identify and certainly very difficult to know how many people in the world, or even in a country like the UK with relatively sophisticated criminal justice systems, may be trapped in slavery.
“Those aware of slightly strange patterns of behaviour – a back street factory where workers never seem to see the light of day, a house which is visited by many men but no women, a house where electricity consumption may be huge, children begging on the streets, rather desperate-looking men offering to tarmac your drive, very casualised car washes – these may all be hiding situations of slavery.
“The public response should always be to report misgivings to the police: better to have the response that all is actually in order than run the risk that people may be left in slavery.”
Mr Stevenson said around 260 victims of human trafficking linked to Leeds have been uncovered by police since 2015. These include those who lived in Leeds, passed through the city or simply reported the offence to someone in Leeds.
He appealed for people in the city to be on the look-out for victims of human trafficking at sites such as nail bars, car washes and takeaways, as the hidden nature of the crime meant it could be happening in front of their noses.
He said: “Our numbers are on the increase still, every year it will increase again, because we are better at looking, and we have just got to keep going.
“We need to keep it going and get people to believe that it’s still there, and we’ve got a duty to look after these people, because it can’t be right.”