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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.