You may have recently heard that three more members of the biggest human trafficking ring ever to be exposed in the UK have been convicted of people trafficking offences.
This is positive news for the estimated 400 people exploited into forced labour in the West Midlands by the criminal network whose operations were thwarted by Hope for Justice, police and partners in the case known as Operation Fort, as it brings justice one step closer.
And now you can hear from one of the survivors themselves, as Paweł* has courageously shared his story. He has chosen to do so, as he says in the film below, because: “It is not the end. I have to help catch more of them.”
Speaking of the support which Hope for Justice gave him, Paweł says: “If this organisation did not exist, I may not be alive now.”
Like the others who were targeted, Paweł was lured from his homeland by the Polish trafficking ring and their co-conspirators in Britain, with the promise of accommodation, work and a better life. Paweł was then controlled, intimidated and threatened, and had most of his wages taken away from him. He was forced to live in shocking conditions which he describes as: “…an insult to human dignity. I wouldn’t want anyone to experience what I did.”
But despite his ordeal, he says: “I don’t want to dwell on the past. I want to surround myself with love and good.”
Hope for Justice: Shoulder to shoulder with survivors every step of the way
In early 2015, one of Hope for Justice’s team, working alongside a support worker, recognised there were victims in his area within the Polish community.
Our investigators shared intelligence with West Midlands Police, and similarities were quickly spotted in victims’ stories, suggesting an organised criminal conspiracy.
We then worked alongside police officers and detectives throughout the ensuing three-year investigation. With other partners including the National Crime Agency (NCA), together we identified 92 victims, although we believe there were as many as 400 people in total who were forced to work in factories, on farms and at recycling centres for precious little pay, often equating to about 50p an hour. Their traffickers and the co-conspirators kept the rest.
Hope for Justice’s Advocacy team continues to support many of the survivors, who showed incredible strength and resilience when they gave evidence during the first two trials. These culminated in July 2019, when eight members of the gang were sentenced to a combined 55 years for slavery, trafficking and money laundering offences.
We also continue to support survivors who gave evidence in the third trial, which concluded on Friday last week (25th June 2021) at Coventry Crown Court.
Our involvement has been described by police as: “…instrumental in taking apart this organised crime network. The perseverance shown by Hope for Justice, to get the best outcome for all of the victims they supported, is testament to the outstanding work they do.”
Following on from the convictions at the third trial last week, Paul McAnulty, UK and Europe Programme Director at Hope for Justice, said: “Human traffickers profit from misery and desperation, exploiting vulnerabilities in good people. This exploitation is often perpetuated by those who choose to look the other way, fail to live up to their responsibilities or, worse, become actively complicit. Employers, retailers, labour providers, landlords, banks, consumers, all of us owe a duty of care - we must all shine a light on the abhorrent crime of modern slavery. Hope for Justice is proud of our role in working alongside West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service to bring an end to this particular network’s activities, and in assisting the survivors, supporting them towards their preferred futures.”
One of those convicted was a 54-year-old British man, David Handy of Oxford Street, Stoke-on-Trent, who set up a recruitment agency to supply a major parcels firm. According to West Midlands Police, Handy “was able to maximise the profits his company made by skimming off some of his victims’ earnings before paying wages directly into their exploiters’ bank accounts. He also received a back-hander from those exploiters for agreeing to find work placements for victims who were under their control. It’s believed Handy made over £500,000 which he used to pay off his mortgage and other debts, and was able to amass savings of around £400,000.”
Mateus Natkowski, 29, was also convicted at Coventry Crown Court on Friday. Lukasz Wywrinski, 38, pleaded guilty on 11 May 2021.
West Midlands Police analysed 650,000 lines of telephone data, 250 bank accounts, more than 3,000 exhibits – including bank statements and benefits claims – and 1,500 witness statements in addition to accounts taken from survivors, many supported by Hope for Justice. Three survivors we are supporting gave evidence at this latest trial, accompanied by Hope for Justice Independent Modern Slavery Advocates (IMSAs).
The judge praised the “meticulous detective work” that led to the arrests and convictions.
Neil Fielding, Specialist Prosecutor from CPS West Midlands Complex Casework Unit, said: “The extent to which this gang callously exploited and deprived their victims of basic human rights is truly appalling. The scale of the suffering they inflicted on huge numbers of mainly vulnerable people is difficult to comprehend. I would like to take the opportunity to thank the many witnesses who gave evidence in this series of trials for their bravery in coming forwards and for continuing to support the case. I would also like to thank the Polish authorities for their assistance in this case.”
West Midlands Police Detective Chief Inspector Nick Dale led the investigation. He said after the latest convictions: “It’s really important businesses know where their workforce is coming from, be intrusive and ask questions. Otherwise they could be fuelling the exploitation of vulnerable victims.”
The sentencing from last Friday’s trial will take place at a later date.
Hope for Justice would like to thank Pawel and the other survivors who have spoken out about their experiences for their incredible courage.
We remain absolutely committed to supporting the survivors every step of the way as they rediscover their freedom.
Learn how to spot the possible signs of modern slavery here.
*Name changed to protect individual’s identity