At least 33 businesses unknowingly paid an organised criminal gang who placed hundreds of victims of modern slavery on construction sites in Britain, an investigation has found.
The gang exploited as many as 500 victims for forced labour on building and demolition sites across London and South-East England between 2009 and 2018.
The Metropolitan Police identified at least 33 companies, including contractors, agencies and payroll providers, that unwittingly paid millions of pounds into bank accounts controlled by the Romanian crime group, according to a report by Dame Sara Thornton, the outgoing Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.
Her report analyses the gang’s activities, which were disrupted by a major police response called Operation Cardinas. The report examines the risks of criminality and drivers of vulnerability in business supply chains, and specifically the construction workforce.
It states that police investigators believe the 33 businesses identified were “only a fraction” of those infiltrated by the gang. The companies identified as part of Operation Cardinas were not named in the report.
Hope for Justice runs a social enterprise, Slave-Free Alliance, which provides services to businesses seeking to protect their operations and supply chains from modern slavery.
The global anti-trafficking charity has responded to Dame Sara Thornton’s 29-page report, Operation Cardinas and Beyond: Addressing exploitation risk in the construction sector.
Slave-Free Alliance Director Marc Stanton said: “All too often businesses are unwittingly infiltrated by gangmasters with victims of forced labour. The construction sector is particularly high-risk because of the high rate of subcontracting and the turnover of workers on site, making it hard to develop rapport with site workers. Construction companies must embed anti-slavery considerations into business-as-usual to protect their operations, supply chain and people from modern slavery and labour exploitation, and handle concerns safely to protect worker welfare.”
Members of Slave-Free Alliance are given access to resources from the Hope for Justice investigators, trainers and other frontline specialists who are working to end modern slavery. Other services include gap analysis, due diligence, risk management resources, crisis response and assistance with modern slavery statements.
Through this initiative, we are engaged with influential and multinational corporate enterprises – including 12 that are current or recent members of the FTSE 100 index.
There are more than 16 million victims of modern slavery in private supply chains around the world, and increasing numbers of businesses are choosing to do something about it.
Labour exploitation poses material and reputational risks to construction, according to the report, as well as negative impacts on security, health and safety, and potentially the quality of the build.
Operation Cardinas – one of the largest modern slavery cases in the UK – led to three members of a Romanian family being jailed in 2019 for modern slavery offences. At a later trial, six members of another organised crime group (OCG) were also convicted in connection with the case.
The Romanian family made an estimated £2.4 million from exploiting their victims, using this wealth to purchase cars and jewellery.
All the while, their victims received as little as £18 a day, or no money at all, working long “gruelling” hours of manual labour “without any training.”
They were recruited from poor areas of Romania, many had never travelled beyond their local region, and some were illiterate. They were promised good pay, with travel, food and accommodation included.
But when they arrived in the UK, they were “crammed into cockroach and rat-infested properties” and made to “scavenge for mattresses dumped on the street”. Their unsanitary, unhygienic living conditions “led to outbreaks of scabies” and they were “fed meat that was long past its sell by date and sometimes rancid”, making them ill, according to the report. Longer-term effects included physical and psychological harm and trauma. The gang used various methods to control their victims and held them in debt bondage as well as other forms of entrapment that left them “disempowered and fearful of reprisals.”
The OCG placed the victims onto major commercial and residential projects, using fraudulent tactics to gain fake credentials, such as CSCS cards to access workplaces.
Due to the rapid turnover of staff in the construction sector, security and safety checks such as right to work checks are “a heavy burden on resources” and the standard of processes is variable, Dame Sara Thornton’s report found.
It warned that security lapses can put the security, safety and wellbeing of workers at risk, and that locations that do not electronically check cards carry a higher risk of modern slavery.
Recommendations included that businesses at the top of supply chains should encourage lower tier contractors to be open about their challenges, and that introducing living wage was desirable, mandated by government. There were also calls for a common platform for sharing data and audits.
One unnamed contractor found to be employing victims of modern slavery – and who supported the police with their investigation – told the commissioner that it had introduced a policy of paying all workers individually and directly into their bank accounts. The business had also introduced staff training to raise awareness of modern slavery.
Dame Sara Thornton said the construction industry faces particular challenges in the ethical management of labour. She added: “Operation Cardinas is a harrowing reminder than no organisation can afford to be complacent, and that every worker has a role to play in spotting the signs. […] Collaborative working is critical for tackling criminality, poor compliance and ruthless opportunism. However, the difficulties that businesses are experiencing in providing effective support to workers, and battling non-compliance in supply chains, underlines the pressing need for government to provide more guidance and leadership across the spectrum of issues.”
Read the full report here.