Thames Reach, which works with homeless people in London, said that so far this year, it was aware of at least 37 incidents involving vulnerable people who had been forced to work for little or no pay and even made to break the law, compared with 22 last year.
Megan Stewart, reconnections manager with Thames Reach, said the recent court case in which four men from a caravan site in Bedfordshire were convicted of controlling and exploiting homeless people had brought about a shift in how society viewed the problem.
“People are getting better at spotting the signs,” Stewart said. “Since the Luton story broke, the police are taking it more seriously when our guys report it.” The exploitation involves trafficking people into the UK but also targeting homeless people on the streets.
The Passage Day Centre in London’s Victoria, which helps homeless people, said its clients were regularly targeted both at the centre and at soup runs. “A couple of weeks ago, some people approached our clients with the offer of work in Belgium,” said Mick Clarke, who runs the centre.
“They said they’d provide them with accommodation and money and when we challenged them, they sped off. It struck me how brazen they are in targeting the vulnerable.”
Clarke said the gangs were benefiting from a “perfect storm” because the economic downturn meant people were ripe for exploitation. “It’s linked to the economy – people are more and more desperate,” Clarke said. “And there is real diversity in the backgrounds of people who are doing this – there are builders, people in suits, people from all ethnicities.”
In many cases, those who were exploited had been offered alcohol as “a reward” and had been told that they or their families back home would face violence if they reported what had happened to them.
A man from eastern Europe who was referred to Thames Reach by St Thomas’s hospital had been trafficked into the country by a gang. When he complained about not being paid, he was beaten up and left on the streets with brain damage.
Other cases include two Hungarian men who were held by travellers in Birmingham and forced to work on driveways, and a Czech man who was beaten by the owners of a car wash in north London before escaping. Another Czech resident did agency work in factories and farms across England, but his wages were paid to the gang who had brought him in. A 29-year-old wheelchair user was forced to beg to raise money for a gang that was exploiting him.
Much of the exploitation appears organised. Thames Reach said it was aware of reports that a criminal gang was trafficking people from the Lithuanian town of Panevezys on a twice-weekly basis.
“There is a wide range of exploitation,” said Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland, operational head of the Metropolitan police’s anti-trafficking unit, which now operates four joint investigation teams focused on Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Poland.
“You get the seven-year-old child who is treated as a slave in Haringey … someone being trafficked through the UK to another country, and then someone else who has been brought over to supply the sex market.”
Hyland said his teams had uncovered examples of men who were trafficked into the UK to work in illegal casinos and who were required to give sexual services to gamblers during their breaks. There was also a 51-year-old man who believed he was being brought to the UK to work as an electrician but instead was forced to go out and commit petty crime or be raped if he refused.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has worked with the Passage to fund a campaign in Poland to highlight the issue. Embassies in eastern Europe and the Middle East are also helping to raise awareness of the risk involved in working in the UK.
Hyland said vulnerable people often did not recognise their predicament. “Maybe because of their mental state or because they are dependent on drugs or alcohol, they may not be able to realise they are being exploited,” he added.In other cases it could be that people had consented to being trafficked into but had been unaware what would be involved when they arrived.
“It could apply to man being brought over for tarmacing or a woman for prostitution,” Hyland said. “They might know what they are coming here for but they don’t appreciate how much they will have to work.”