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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.

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

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.