When you are homeless, an offer of work and accommodation can seem almost too good to be true.
But so often that offer can prove to instead offer a route into modern slavery – with forced labour, infringed freedom and a life of pain and misery.
That was the case for John. On the streets following injuries suffered in a serious assault, he was offered labouring work on social media by an acquaintance. But the reality was far from the big break he yearned for.
John was taken in by a family and subjected to 12-hour unpaid working days for seven days a week. He was forced to live in a filthy room with little food, he was forced to carry out petty thefts with the threat of violence if he didn’t comply.
He only managed to flee when police raided the farm,
When he escaped months later, John found himself on the streets yet again – vulnerable, with no cash and no-one to trust – and was picked up again at a commercial farm.
This time, he only managed to flee when police raided the farm and mustered up the courage to inform the authorities after working with Hope for Justice, a charity combatting modern slavery.
John’s story is by no means an isolated case. In fact, the latest figures from the National Crime Agency’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which will soon be taken over by the Home Office, show that 1,961 potential victims were flagged up to authorities in the last three months of 2018. That’s an increase of 12 per cent on July to September. Across the UK it is thought that up to 136,000 people find themselves trapped in forced labour or trafficked and exploited for sex.
The extent of the issue is attracting growing attention – the BBC’s Why Slavery? season last year collaborated with the Open University to create seven films around International Anti-Slavery Day on October 18, including hard-hitting drama Doing Money. But research from the Co-op Group earlier this month found that 18 per cent of Brits are still unaware of modern slavery.
National Crime Agency Tactical Advisor Sian Turner insists it is crucial to communicate the tactics and strategies used to spread the word, particularly when it comes to homeless people.
“What happens is that the men in the family go to places where vulnerable people gather, such as a homeless shelter or hostel, and they will turn up in their white vans and offer employment, typically £50 a day, as well as accommodation,” says Turner.
“It is as simple as that. From there, they are driven in the back of the van to a site and it is from there that the grooming progress begins.
“They will be given a static caravan to live in and their personal effects will be taken away, their head will be shaved and they will be given a boiler suit-like uniform. They will be introduced to the family and then they will be put to work.
“That can be anything from block paving driveways to cutting trees and for the first few days they will be paid for their work and then there will be a period of time when they will not be paid. When they ask to be paid that is when the assaults will start.
“This type of grooming is called traumatic bonding. People feel that they are trapped in these circumstances and find it very difficult to leave because pay day becomes about hope. They are living in hope of that.”
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Turner has seen the devastating effects of these tactics in two of the National Crime Agency’s biggest stings.
Operation Netwing in Bedfordshire was a four-month operation that released 24 people trapped after being recruited from shelters and off the streets to work for the Connors family, whose patriarch Tommy Connors Senior was jailed for eight years after a police raid.
Three years later, Operation Pottery began, a similar case resulting in nine members of the Rooney family being jailed for keeping victims against their will in Lincolnshire and forcing them to resurface driveways. The sister of one victim, who was held by the family for over quarter of a century, later revealed that on one occasion he was made to dig his own grave when he tried to leave.
We’ve absolutely seen evidence of people being targeted –we even have had people pretending to be homeless to get into our buildings but luckily they were rumbled on those attempts
As homelessness charity Passage’s chief executive Mick Clarke reveals, the lengths that some traffickers will go to in order to recruit homeless people are shocking.
“We’ve absolutely seen evidence of people being targeted – we have had day services where people are approaching our clients as they are leaving the building or even on a couple of occasions we even have had people pretending to be homeless to get into our buildings but luckily they were rumbled on those attempts,” he says.
“It’s one of those things wherever there is poverty, there is often great compassion in terms of people wanting to help but also it can bring people out who want to exploit it – and modern slavery is exactly the same. And with the rise in rough sleeping in recent years it means that there are more people to prey on.”
Key to tackling the issue at the source is ensuring frontline workers and the homeless people they work with can spot the signs of modern slavery.
This can be crucial to prevent recruitment in the first place and also break down barriers with the police. When people like John are arrested for petty crimes they are forced into committing, the intimidation from their captors can stop them telling the police while the mental toll of modern slavery cannot be underestimated, building a wall of silence that can often outlast the upsetting ordeal that people are subjected to.
One notable victim, Darrell Simester, was so mentally broken during his 13-year spell in modern slavery that when two undercover police officers asked him if he was okay while he working on the Welsh farm that he replied he was “fine”.
Breaking down this wall of silence is crucial. If they report their experiences to the authorities once referred to the NRM then they can access support and even accommodation during a 45-day reflection and recovery period after being freed, ensuring they are not on the street and vulnerable to be targeted again.
That is if the system works – a BBC investigation last year found that more than 2,200 people in the system have been awaiting a decision on whether their claim is genuine for at least 12 months, with 100 waiting since 2015.
Passage created their Modern Slavery Handbook in 2017 to help raise awareness in shelters for this reason.
Clarke says: “The thing that really strikes us is that homelessness runs through every aspect of modern slavery so if you’re on the streets you’re at risk of being targeted. If you’ve broken out of modern slavery then you often end up on the streets but when you’re in modern slavery, you may be in accommodation but certainly not a home.
“It’s an interesting thing that runs through there – the whole purpose of what we’re doing is how we can raise awareness and try and ensure that people working on the frontline are aware of the signs and building links with charities and the police.”
So how will the issue be tackled going forward?
The Home Office appears to have taken a bigger role in tackling the issue in recent months; the UK government was rated third in the world for taking action against modern slavery by the Global Slavery Index. But does that say more about the UK government’s effectiveness, or other governments’ lack of action? A report by the Public Accounts Committee in May 2018 stated that the government’s “good intentions have yet to result in coherent action to help [victims].”
Home Office Under Secretary for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, Victoria Atkins MP, fronted a ministerial roundtable that brought together charities, businesses and other government departments to create a more joined-up system. But last May the UK’s first independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, resigned from his role citing “government interference”.
Clearly, there is still much work to be done four years after the Modern Slavery Act 2015 came into force, with the number of police investigations since then tripling to 600 per year, in a time when officers have been subjected to debilitating cuts.
A Work and Pensions Committee report published last month saw chair Frank Field warn that slavery victims are being “failed twice” by “weak and uncoordinated” frontline work.
For people like John, that situation needs to change.
Main image: Doing Money, BBC