Largest modern slavery prosecution shows ‘any of us’ could own products made by victims

A review prompted by the dismantling of the largest modern slavery gang in UK history – a joint operation by Hope for Justice and West Midlands Police – has found that “any of us” could have purchased goods produced by victims of slavery and that there is “no room for complacency.”

Hope for Justice and West Midlands Police identified 92 victims as part of the investigation, dubbed Operation Fort, but believe there were as many as 400 in total.

The charity continues to support many of the victims who bravely gave evidence during two trials, which culminated in July 2019 when eight members of the gang were sentenced to a combined 55 years for slavery, trafficking and money laundering offences. A further four people fled the UK in 2019 and are awaiting extradition to face trial.

The victims, many of them with existing vulnerabilities, were recruited in Poland, and brought to the UK with the promise of work and accommodation. But they were instead forced to live in squalid conditions, in rat-infested properties, often with no heating or hot water, no bed, and only scraps of out-of-date food for sustenance. They were put to work in factories, on farms and at recycling centres, to name a few.

The West Midlands-based gang routinely supplied exploited victims to chains that supply goods to some of the UK’s biggest food retailers and home improvement stores.

Some of the companies that were targeted have been supported by Hope for Justice’s not-for-profit social enterprise Slave-Free Alliance.

The landmark case prompted a review by Dame Sara Thornton, the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, who said “slavery and trafficking are not confined to global supply chains. They are occurring in plain sight in the United Kingdom.”

Dame Sara has met with retail businesses to find out how the sector has been responding to Operation Fort. Following the case, she wrote to the CEOs of 15 large UK retailers who carried products made by suppliers where victims of modern slavery were forced to work, including Asda, B&Q, Homebase, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Aldi and Morrisons, informing them they had have a role to play in “identifying and preventing exploitation” and asking what they were doing to ensure that suppliers were not using slave labour. All of them responded.

The review, ‘What businesses should learn from the UK’s largest anti-slavery prosecution’, sets out her findings. It stresses the importance of suppliers “working together in a shared endeavour” to respond to the issue of modern-day slavery.

It states: “The eradication of labour exploitation should be integrated into long term strategy, be led from the top of an organisation, and inform the day to day activities of every department. Similarly, those organisations at the top of supply chains bear a responsibility for supporting their suppliers into sustainable improvements.”

Other recommendations include rewarding those who challenge wrongdoing, procurement teams showing evidence that the true costs of labour has been factored into goods and services, recruitment agencies carrying out “more effective checks”, and businesses carrying out unannounced audits.

Earlier this year, Morrisons and Aldi UK joined Slave-Free Alliance, giving them access to services such as site assessments, online resources and technical consultations.

Dame Sara said in the review: “Modern slavery and human trafficking are egregious criminal offences and it is important that the perpetrators are brought to justice and that victims are supported. Cases such as Operation Fort send a strong message of the state’s resolve to pursue wrongdoing, however complex the investigation and prosecution.”

More than one year on, Hope for Justice continues to support many of the victims with ongoing aftercare and advocacy, ensuring that they have continued access to accommodation, benefits and entitlements and helping them to secure settled status in the UK.

Read the full review here.

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