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LGA - Public needs greater awareness of modern slavery, say councils and fire and rescue authorities

People need to be more aware of modern slavery to help tackle criminal gangs exploiting vulnerable workers living in squalor and on scandalous wages, as latest figures show council referrals of potential victims have soared by 78 per cent, the Local Government Association warned last week.

Councils and fire and rescue services have taken part in major operations to rescue workers being paid as little as £1 an hour and sleeping on cardboard. Suspected brothels have been shut down, arrests made and convictions secured after car wash operators, nail bars and fast food outlets were all visited.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 councils and all fire and rescue authorities in England and Wales, says many people may unwittingly come into contact with potential victims of modern slavery while going about their daily lives and need to report their suspicions to help better expose the "hidden crime".

The LGA is urging the public to look out for tell-tale signs, such as large numbers of people being ferried to and from properties in vans or minibuses early in the morning and returning late at night.

Government figures estimate there are between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of slavery in the UK. Latest National Crime Agency figures also show that the number of referrals of potential victims made by councils to the National Referral Mechanism - the UK's framework for referring and supporting victims - has soared from 172 in 2014 to 306 in 2015 – a rise of 78 per cent.

Councils have been working with partners, including the National Crime Agency and UK Immigration Services, to tackle slavery and human trafficking. Recent operations include:

  • An investigation involving Sandwell Council and West Midlands Fire Service saw three men arrested on suspicion of working a group of Polish nationals like slaves and paying them just £1 an hour at recycling plants in the Black Country where some of them were bedding down on cardboard and one was thought to be working with a broken shoulder.
  • Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) and council officers supported an operation by Greater Manchester Police in which more than 200 addresses were visited during a crackdown. A total of 27 people were arrested, 18 victims of slavery or human trafficking were rescued and suspected brothels were shut down. GMFRS attended some of the visits where potential fire safety issues had been identified, such as people found sleeping on business premises.
  • A two-day operation supported by Swindon Borough Council and Wiltshire Council working with Wiltshire Police led to 13 people – all working at nail bars and car washes - arrested for immigration offences. A man was also arrested for controlling and managing a brothel.
  • An operation involving Newcastle City Council saw 13 people arrested and 10 people, thought to be victims of exploitation, safeguarded.
  • Elmbridge Borough Council supported a police raid which saw the owner of a Surrey car wash arrested on suspicion of human trafficking and money laundering. Two people were referred to the Immigration Enforcement, a further 14 workers were safeguarded, and £5,000 was seized under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
  • Rochford District Council supported a police operation carrying out intensive checks at fast food outlets – where children might congregate or work - to look out for young people who could be at risk of being sexually exploited.

Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA's Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said:

"Councils will not tolerate the exploitation of people in their communities and are committed to protecting the most vulnerable in society.

"Modern day slavery is a rising threat to our communities, and because of its hidden nature, is a major concern.

"Criminal gangs are making large sums of money on the back of others' misery by forcing people – often by threatening or using physical violence - to work for little or no pay, or to pay off outstanding debts. By contrast those taking advantage of these people are often living luxury lifestyles.

"Councils are determined to identify these ruthless profiteers and rescue their victims from lives of servitude – and communities can really play a big part to help.

"Many people may think modern slavery is a problem which doesn't affect them, but nowhere is immune because it can happen everywhere. This isn't someone else's problem and we all need to be alert to it, wherever we live.

"We want to encourage everyone to report suspicious behaviour which may indicate exploitation is happening in their area, such as concerns over the minimum wage and working and living conditions.

"People should look out for tell-tale signs, like large numbers of people staying in homes and people being taken to and from the address in vans or minibuses early in the morning and returning late at night. If you are using a car wash, look at whether people working there have clothes that protect them from the strong chemicals being used.

"Tip-offs from communities can help councils work with partners to better tackle slavery and exploitation. A simple phone call could make a world of difference to people living wretched lives at the hands of heartless gangmasters."

Anyone who believes someone is in immediate danger due to modern slavery or exploitation should call police on 999, or 101 if there is no immediate danger. Alternatively, call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 0121 700.

Case studies

Essex

Rochford District Council has supported a police operation carrying out intensive checks at fast food outlets – where children might congregate or work - to look out for young people who could be at risk of being sexually exploited. In a bid to find and safeguard vulnerable children, two operations saw officers visit takeaways, speak to workers and owners and checked their backgrounds. The operations followed the jailing of a pimp who ran an escort agency from his flat, where girls as young as 15 were employed. His driver, who ferried prostitutes to addresses across Essex and arranged for them to receive payment and drugs, was also jailed.

Surrey

The 33-year-old owner of a car wash in Walton, Surrey was arrested on suspicion of human trafficking and money laundering in an operation supported by Elmbridge Borough Council. Two people were referred to the Immigration Enforcement, a further 14 workers were safeguarded, while £5,000 was also seized under the Proceeds of Crime Act following the police raid.

Wiltshire

Swindon Borough Council and Wiltshire Council supported Wiltshire Police during two days of action to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery. Thirteen people – all working at nail bars and car washes - were arrested for immigration offences after 20 local businesses were visited to check on the welfare of their employees and assess whether there was any evidence of potential exploitation. A 73-year-old man was also arrested for the offence of controlling and managing a brothel.

West Midlands

Three men were arrested on suspicion of working a group of Polish nationals like slaves and paying them just £1 an hour at recycling plants in the Black Country. The police operation, which involved Sandwell Council officers and West Midlands Fire Service, found one man suspected of working with a broken shoulder, while others showed signs of malnutrition and alcohol dependency. Some of the men were sleeping at one of the recycling units and bedding down on cardboard.

Newcastle

An operation involving Newcastle City Council, saw 13 people arrested in a crackdown on modern day slavery, human trafficking, and labour exploitation. Ten people, including both men and women, who are believed to be the victims of exploitation were also located during searches of eight properties and were safeguarded by police and partners.

Greater Manchester

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) and council officers supported an operation by Greater Manchester Police in which more than 200 addresses were visited during a crackdown. Police arrested 27 people, 18 victims of slavery or human trafficking were rescued and suspected brothels were shut down. The arrests were for crimes such as modern slavery, kidnapping, employing illegal workers and suspicion of illegal entry. GMFRS attended some of the visits where potential fire safety issues had been identified, such as people found sleeping on business premises.

GMFRS is aware that people who are exploiting others are likely to be those operating businesses breaking fire safety legislation. The Service regularly attends joint visits with partners including the police to premises including nail bars, car washes, takeaways, food processing plants, clothing factories and massage parlours where fire safety issues have been identified. Firefighters help to improve the safety for people in those premises and identify any victims. Greater Manchester's response to Modern Slavery is called Challenger, which is a multi-agency team including GMFRS which shares intelligence on jobs attended.

Notes to editors

Modern slavery can take many forms including the trafficking of people, forced labour, servitude, slavery, sexual and criminal exploitation. It also includes other forms of exploitation such as organ removal, forced begging, forced benefit fraud, forced marriage and illegal adoption.

  • Research estimates there were between 10,000 and 13,000 potential victims of slavery in the UK in 2013.
  • In 2015 there were 3,266 potential victims of modern slavery referred to the National Referral Mechanism - the UK's framework for referring and supporting victims – which was a rise of 40 per cent on the 2,340 referrals in 2014. The number of referrals made by councils has risen from 172 in 2014 to 306 in 2015 – a rise of 78 per cent.
  • Human trafficking for sexual exploitation, just one form of modern slavery, is estimated to cost the UK at least £890 million each year.
    Common signs of modern slavery (pages 2-4)
  • Under the Modern Slavery Act, councils have a duty to notify the Home Office of any individual encountered in England and Wales who they believe is a suspected victim of slavery or human trafficking.
  • More information on modern slavery
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