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Case Studies Operation Fort: Uncovering the largest modern slavery ring in UK history

Operation Fort: Uncovering the largest modern slavery ring in UK history

Guardian coverage of Operation Fort caseA Polish-speaking man, a church-run soup kitchen, a charity delivering spot the signs training – all three were pivotal in identifying the first known victims of the largest modern slavery gang in UK history. Hope for Justice worked on the complex and long-running investigation alongside West Midlands Police, the National Crime Agency and the Crown Prosecution Service. A total of 92 victims were identified during the case, designated Operation Fort, though we believe the gang could have exploited as many as 400 people.

The investigation ran from 2014-2017, with criminal trials in 2019 and 2021.

In this article, we record the early beginnings of the investigation behind the biggest modern slavery prosecution in UK history, with 11 people convicted to date (as of January 2024).

“Operation Fort was the largest prosecution of its type in the UK. We were able to dismantle a large criminal network and prevent the exploitation of hundreds of victims. Without the tireless and dedicated work of Hope for Justice, we quite simply would not have been able to gain the trust of the victims, fully understand the criminal network, and achieve the result we did.”

Superintendent Nick Dale, senior investigating officer on Operation Fort for West Midlands Police

How Hope for Justice became involved

In 2014, Hope for Justice set up an investigative Hub in the West Midlands and began connecting with services in the community where vulnerable people – at risk of human trafficking – might attend.

Gary Booth (pictured), who now chairs Utilities Against Slavery, was Hope for Justice’s West Midlands Hub manager at the time of Operation Fort. As a former Detective Chief Inspector at West Midlands Police, responsible for a team of 400 officers, he has specialist knowledge of modern slavery, public protection, safeguarding and serious crime. Looking back on the early days of the investigation, Gary said: “Hope for Justice’s West Midlands Hub was comprised of ex-police investigators, working across West Bromwich which had areas of deprivation. We were reaching out into the communities, connecting with services where potential victims might be found. One of these was run by a small church that provided a daytime and afternoon soup kitchen which was primarily focused on people with drink and drug dependencies who wanted shelter and help.

“We reached out to the church and one of the guys working at the soup kitchen talked to us about these Polish nationals who were coming through the doors for food. On the outside, they looked healthy, and as though they didn’t need handouts, but they were literally broken people.”

Identifying the first victims

The congregation at this small church plant in West Bromwich were keen to learn more about our work, and invited a Hope for Justice investigator to deliver modern slavery awareness training.

Piotr, a Polish-speaking Christian support worker who had received the training, began interacting with Polish nationals who were attending the church-run soup kitchen for handouts in early 2015. Without language barriers, Piotr could easily speak with them and build trust.

Piotr, who was later employed by Hope for Justice to work on the frontline as a Community Outreach Officer, spoke about his experiences and the early days of the Operation Fort investigation in a podcast interview with Debbie Huxton, Modern Slavery Campaigner for Transforming Communities Together (Season 2: Episode 4).

He said: “I started volunteering for a local church in West Bromwich as an interpreter – I speak a number of languages. In February 2015, I was asked by the pastors of the church to attend modern slavery awareness training. I have to admit that at the time, I wondered what I would get out of this training. I was struggling with the uncomfortable truth that it can happen around the corner from where I live.

“At that time I wasn’t sure what I could do – I wasn’t a police officer, I wasn’t Superman, I was just an everyday person. However, I started to speak to my clients and people I was engaging with on a daily basis about there being hope for people in these situations.

“Within five working days of receiving the training, I was able to identify my first potential victim. A brave lady came over to me and whispered, ‘I need to talk to you. I cannot talk to you right now because someone is watching me’. I was able to organise to speak with her and learned that she was a victim of slavery – herself and her husband had been working 60 hours every week. They had been transported to work – two hours there, two hours back, plus, 10, 12, 14 hours of work a day. And all that work was rewarded with £10 to £20 between two of them. I’m not sure about you, but let me tell you, I would really struggle to survive on £20 a week.”

West Midlands Police begin their investigation

Piotr was able to support the couple to report the crime to the police, marking the beginning of the largest anti-slavery investigation in the UK.

In the days immediately following identification, the couple were provided with safe accommodation at a hotel. Piotr continued: “This was my first rescue. The husband spoke to me on the phone and said ‘Thank you. Today is the first day that I am sleeping in a clean bed. Today is the first day that I can take a shower. Today is the first day that no-one is stealing my food. I haven’t experienced these things in a long, long time’. That is how I first got involved in this amazing movement.”

Piotr worked as a Community Outreach Officer for Hope for Justice for more than five years, helping to identify and rescue potential victims of human trafficking.

After that first intervention with the couple, Piotr knew there was more to do. He believed that more of the Polish people he was interacting with at the soup kitchen might be victims of modern-day slavery. He began asking the right questions and, with help from Hope for Justice investigators – former police officers with extensive experience of complex investigations – the pieces started coming together. It seemed like a highly organized and potentially dangerous criminal gang was operating in the area.

Media coverage about Hope for Justice's role in Operation Fort, Birmingham Mail, August 2019

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Between March and July 2015, Hope for Justice received new referrals for potential victims on a near-daily basis. Gary Booth said: “The number of survivors accessing the soup kitchen in those early days was astonishing – we would rescue one person and then a few days later, we would identify another. Piotr was instrumental – he was evangelical, compassionate, he had a real connection with the Polish community. It took Piotr a long time to gain their trust and confidence. He, his pastor and the church were pivotal in the whole operation. They saved lives. That church being in that location at that time was crucial. The church bridged the gap between the survivors and Hope for Justice, and we in turn were pivotal in kick-starting the official investigation [with the police].”

“It was almost as if Hope for Justice created for us the corners and the edges of the jigsaw puzzle that was this case.”

Caroline Haughey QC, lead barrister/prosecutor on Operation Fort

Gary Booth said: “The traffickers knew that victims were being rescued. They did not supply them with food and essentials, which the soup kitchen was able to provide. It wasn’t until the police started knocking doors down and becoming more active in their approach that the traffickers started to take notice.”

The victims, many of them with existing vulnerabilities, were recruited in Poland, and brought to the UK on the promise of work and accommodation. But when they arrived, they were put to work in factories, on farms, at recycling centres and parcel sorting warehouses. Their products entered the supply chains of some of the UK’s largest retailers.

The victims were forced to work long hours while the traffickers pocketed their salaries – many of them were paid into bank accounts that were directly controlled by the gang. The gang gave them handouts – tiny amounts of cash or food or alcohol. Some of the victims were effectively working for just pennies an hour.

They were made to live in squalid conditions, in rat-infested properties, often with no heating or hot water. Some survivors told us later that they were washing in a canal at the back of the house. They had no bed, and only scraps of out-of-date food. Instead, they were told to go to the nearby soup kitchen.

Operation Fort - squalid conditions that victims were kept in

Living conditions for some of the victims. Photo: West Midlands Police

Meanwhile, their perpetrators were living a life of luxury, profiting from their misery. The organised crime group, a family network, was driving around in expensive cars and buying designer clothes. The criminals had combined duties to recruit, to enforce, to direct and to network.

They are estimated to have made more than £2 million out of people being exploited and mistreated between 2012 and 2017.

Operation Fort - Sunday Times coverage

In 2019, the same couple Piotr had first identified were among 51 victims who bravely testified against their traffickers in court, enabling the dismantling of the serious organised crime group.

“This was absolutely remarkable work. One wonders how long this would have gone undetected and flourished, otherwise.”

Judge Mary Stacey, when giving a Hope for Justice outreach worker a judicial commendation

Hope for Justice’s Independent Modern Slavery Advocates (IMSAs) supported the survivors to give evidence. We are continuing to support many of the survivors in their ongoing recovery.

Detective Superintendent Sheon Sturland, Unit Commander of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Modern Slavery and Organised Immigration Crime Unit, previously said: “The victim support provided by Hope for Justice was 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.” 

Spot the signs training

This case alone shows how important it is, not only to have an awareness about modern slavery – but also to know what to do if you suspect modern slavery. These elements are central to the training that we deliver.

Alister Bull, Training Manager at Hope for Justice, said the fact that the largest modern slavery prosecution in UK history was initially triggered because someone received our training showed how valuable it can be. “He had received training in the signs and indicators of modern slavery, he recognised that the things being told to him by potential victims warranted follow-up, and so his knowledge and actions led to a major investigation.”

Find out more about our training, including free online courses you can take in your own time:

More about Operation Fort

Watch interviews with survivors:

Interviews and writing for this piece were by Rosalyn Roden and Adam Hewitt, Hope for Justice.

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