Homelessness and trafficking: how the desperate are being forced into black market work

We might not hear about it a lot of the time, but all around us, every day, people are being forced into exploitative and dangerous work.

Here’s a story that seems redolent of the London of Dickens, but is happening all around us. The homeless are under threat from criminal gangs. They pick them up from soup kitchens and day centres across the capital with offers of money or drink in return for low-skilled work, then traffic them around the country to do slave labour. I’m in the offices of Thames Reach, a homeless charity, when I’m told about a case with which they’ve been dealing that day.

Daniel was approached at a soup kitchen by a man who offered him a job, accommodation and money. He was taken to a shed at the back of a large house in Croydon, where he stayed with eight other men.

He worked from 6am till 8pm on demolition jobs. He was paid £40 a day, but out of that he had to pay a Polish man (the leader of the gang overseeing them) for petrol and accommodation. As time went by he developed a back problem. He asked his boss if he could see the doctor. In response, the gang leader refused to pay him the money he was owed, and told him to get lost.

One member of staff at Thames Reach tells me she’s seen 50 such cases - those are just the ones she’s referred to other authorities. Another tells me that one group of rough sleepers in Brent were being paid in cider by the gangs. They know of at least one bakery in the Midlands and a factory in Lancashire where rough sleepers have been plucked from the streets to work, along with another man who ended up doing chores in a house in Leicester. None of these workers are, of course, paying National Insurance, so if anything goes wrong, as it did with Daniel, there’s no safety net.

This is happening all around us, every day in this country. It seems a shocking story. Why is it so under the radar? Part of the issue may be the nationality of these rough sleepers. It’s something our politicians have been reticent to discuss, because it’s a hot potato and they can’t do much about it.

The profile of rough sleeping in Britain changed following the accession of central and eastern European countries to the European Union in 2004 and 2007. To quote Jeremy Swain, Thames Reach’s chief executive:

In London in 2005/06, central and eastern Europeans comprised just 6 per cent of the rough sleeping population. In the latest figures (2012/13) this figure stands at 28 per cent, and now 53 per cent of London’s rough sleeping population are non-UK nationals.

Many of these people are living in squalid conditions, but as Swain says:

This horrifying phenomenon of rough sleeping among predominantly non-UK nationals remains an issue that, with honourable exceptions, homelessness organisations are reluctant to highlight, less still debate.

And as he goes on to say:

Tackling migrant homelessness and working with people with complex immigration issues is a high-risk business. As the statistics indicate, it involves engaging with some people who are living in this country illegally. Any serious debate on the subject runs the risk of being manipulated by [...] pressure groups and populist politicians. Yet the homelessness sector, by behaving as if it hopes to side-step debating these matters, is failing to shine a light on a developing humanitarian disaster as people are consigned to live in deplorable conditions, the worst witnessed for a generation and certainly comparable to the monstrous ‘cardboard cities’ of the 1980s.

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So in many ways these shocking tales are the flip side to an issue with which we’re rather more familiar: the trafficking of people to Britain in order to carry out slave labour for criminal gangs. Something else with which Swain’s charity has plenty of experience.

Slawimir was approached outside a homeless shelter in Prague. A friendly man told him that he could find him work and accommodation in the UK if he was interested. Slawimir explained that he could not afford to go to England as he was out of work. The man offered to pay his fare to England, telling Slawimir he could pay him back out of his first wage packet as he had been helped to find work himself and understood Slawimir’s situation. Slawimir could not speak or understand English.

He was taken in a minibus to a house in Switzerland and kept under lock and key for three days. He was told that the transport could arrive any time to take them to England and it was important that they remain in the house to facilitate a speedy journey. The gang master took all his documents, saying he would need to show his ID at the border. Slawimir said that he and the seven other people (two Slovakians, four Romanians, and one Polish man) also kept in the house were treated very well.

They landed in Dover. However, after going through customs the mini bus driver and his companion began to change their attitude. They stopped at several truck stops and each time Slawimir noticed that when one or two guys were taken from the minibus they were getting into different transport and their ID was given to the driver of the new transport. Slawimir also noticed that money was being given to his driver.

By the time they got to Leeds there was only Slawimir and one other victim left in the minibus. Slawimir began to get scared when the driver of the minibus picked up a big Asian-looking man who told the two men that they would be working for him and it was important that they did as they were told. The man then gave the minibus driver a bundle of £20 notes.

Slawimir and the other man were then transferred into a saloon type car. They were placed in the back seat of the car and their doors were locked. They were driven for about one hour before they arrived at a house in what Slawimir describes as a ‘field’. The two men were put in a room off a kitchen and the door was locked. Next morning the man told them that they had to go to work. They refused, saying they did not want to be living in a house where they were locked up.

Both men were then beaten up by the big man, and a younger man, also of Asian appearance. They were told that they could disappear if they did not do as they were told. They were shown photographs of a burnt out-house with bodies laid outside. The men were told that the same thing could happen to them and their families if they did not follow the instructions of their bosses. Both were told that they belonged to the big guy as he had paid a lot of money for them. He asked them who they thought paid for them to live in luxury in Switzerland. He told them that this is why they would eat, drink, work and sleep only when he permitted it.

Slawimir received one meal a day and never received one penny for the work he was forced to do. He later explained that he’d done all sorts of jobs; building driveways, tiling work, factory work in a carpet factory where he was watched very closely by the boss and even having to clean the house belonging to his gang master and looking after his children. His working day began at 5:30am and he would usually get to sleep around 1am. He slept on a bit of carpet with one blanket for the duration of his stay.

He eventually escaped, and made his way to the Czech Embassy in London. Slawimir was told he needed to go back to the place he had fled from and get his ID. When Slawimir told them he could not go back to these people, the embassy made a referral to Thames Reach. He explained what had happened to their staff and was offered support to report his ordeal to the police. Slawimir was frightened, but knew there was another male being held at his location.

He had copied the shapes of letters spelling out some significant names, but this wasn’t enough to help the police pinpoint the location where he was kept. He was advised about the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and the support he would receive if he chose this referral pathway. Slawimir did not want to accept Thames Reach making a referral for him but, he was also scared about returning to Prague. Thames Reach contacted one of their partner support organisations and explained Slawimir’s situation and his concerns. They placed him in a B&B so he could feel safe while they made his travel arrangements and got emergency travel documents from the Embassy.

Thames Reach then contacted all the EU Embassies to alert them to the fact that this practise of recruitment was also happening to their nationals. They arranged to accompany Slawimir to one of their projects in a different part of the Czech Republic. This project then linked him up to other support services who could give him accommodation and counselling.

Many hundreds of thousands of migrants are prospering in the UK since the enlargement of the EU. But at the bottom of the heap are men like Slawimir, who come here believing they’ll receive a fair wage and find themselves bound to criminals. The issue of black market work hasn’t really hit the headlines since the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster of 2004. There’s a lack of willing to question where we get much of our cheap labour. But someone’s providing it. It’s not good enough to pretend it happens by magic.

 

A rough sleeper bedded down in north London. Photo: Patrick Harrison

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue