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Trafficking conspiracy shakes UK recycling sector

A former senior police officer who helped smash a criminal gang making millions from modern slavery at recycling facilities in the UK has warned the problem is getting bigger.

Gary Booth, once with West Midlands Police, is now the regional head of Hope for Justice, a charity that helps expose criminal gangs. He was a guest speaker at the first RWM exhibition in Birmingham since the jailing in the summer of eight Polish nationals for up to 11 years. Their £2 million (US$ 2.5 million) trafficking conspiracy is said to be the ‘most ambitious, extensive and prolific’ network of modern day slavery seen in the UK.

In plain sight

Nearly 100 victims were identified but Booth said that was probably only a quarter of the people forced to work for very little money as manual workers, typically contracted through recruitment agencies for recycling facilities.

‘The hard truth is that the practice still continues, here and in plain sight,’ said Booth. ‘When we started, the business sector was blissfully ignorant. They weren’t stupid or complicit, just ignorant.’

The number people identified in the UK as being victims of slave labour has gone up by one-third in each of the last two years. They are typically vulnerable people, typically from eastern Europe, who are forced to work for a pittance and are often fearful of their lives.

The criminals control their lives through managed, poor-quality, accommodation and taking cash from the victims’ bank accounts. Charities estimate that two-thirds worked in a recycling or waste facility at some time during their exploitation.

Multiple contracts cancelled

Companies are establishing a code of conduct and best practice to spot the early signs of modern slavery and inform the authorities. A year ago, Biffa was the first of the major waste managers to sign up to the Slave-Free Alliance. The company’s divisional HR director, Melanie Frogdell, said they had been proactive with contractors.

‘We told all existing suppliers they had to comply with our strategy and potential suppliers were told they had to have measures in place before they could work with us. In the end, contracts with five suppliers were discontinued and 12 others were not taken on.’

Biffa is supporting an industry-wide campaign in the UK called ‘Root it out’ which has been set up by the UK-based trade journal Materials Recycling World.

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