Homeless workers have reported a growing problem of gangs luring rough sleepers into enforced labour by preying on their desperation.
After five people were charged with slavery offences in Bedfordshire last week, charity Thames Reach warned that the issue was a growing concern.
“It’s something that seems to be happening more and more,” said Megan Stewart, who manages Thames Reach’s London Reconnection Project, which helps homeless central and eastern Europeans to return home.
While Thames Reach knows of 20 people from central or eastern Europe who have escaped these situations, Stewart believes the number affected is far higher.
Men are being lured from soup kitchens and day centres by promises of work and accommodation. Many are held against their will in properties with sometimes up to 40 other men and are then sent to work in factories, Stewart warned.
They live in fear of beatings and are warned not to attempt to escape or risk retribution to their family, and can be forced to work 12-hour days, with many paid in alcohol or as little as £10 a week, she said.
Gangs are reportedly operating in Birmingham, Manchester, Southampton, Dover, Leicester, and Luton.
Workers from countries that have joined the European Union since 2004 are at particular risk of losing their jobs during the current economic downturn and have reduced eligibility for benefits. They are said to be most at risk.
“The guys are desperate and that’s what these gangs are preying on. You could be standing in a queue for food and someone says ‘I can get you work and accommodation’. I would go with them if I was in their shoes,” said Stewart,
One man from the Czech Republic, who escaped from a house in Birmingham, had burns on his wrist from where he had been handcuffed to a hot radiator.
He told Stewart that he had been picked up in the Czech Republic with a group of men, given medication that made them “groggy” and ultimately ended up in Birmingham. He was never paid and believed his wages were sent to the gangmaster’s family in the Czech Republic.
“Rough sleepers have had challenges, but this is incredibly new and quite unbelievable. It just beggars belief that it’s happening in London in the 21st century.”
Five people have been charged with conspiracy to hold people in servitude and requiring them to perform forced labour, after 24 vulnerable people were found at the Greenacre caravan site in Leighton Buzzard on Sunday 11 September.
Four – Jimmy Connors, 23, Tommy Connors, 26, Patrick Connors, 19, and James Connors, 33 – have been remanded in custody to appear at Luton Crown Court at a future date; the fifth, Josie Connors has been bailed and is due to appear at Luton Magistrates’ Court today (Thursday).
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