Marek isn’t exactly sure at what point he realised his liberty had been lost, but he thinks it was probably when the expressionless van driver pushed them into the filthy storage room and he heard the key turn. He remembers the look of fear on Pavel’s face and was suddenly certain that they had been duped.
It had started promisingly. Marek is naturally outgoing, but he tells his story with restrained earnestness, occasionally looking towards the door as if fearing his captors might burst in at any moment to return him to the storage room prison. Marek is from a small town in the Czech Republic where he lived in a cramped flat with his girlfriend. Apart from occasional work on building sites he has been mostly unemployed over the last three years and when a neighbour offered to link him with people in the UK who could find him well paid work with accommodation, Marek responded enthusiastically. He was encouraged to bring a friend, so contacted 63 year-old Pavel who had family problems he was eager to leave behind.
As promised, the flight tickets arrived, delivered by hand to his address by a helpful stranger and, on arrival at Luton airport, a van was waiting for them. The men couldn’t believe their good fortune. Here in the UK there was an opportunity of earning a wage of a size inconceivable in comparison with the paltry sums on offer in the Czech Republic.
It was at this point, Marek explained, that the first niggles of doubt arose. The back windows of the van were blacked out and the driver cursorily waved away questions about their destination. Hours later, they were bundled from the van and shoved into the storage room which had no toilet, water or heating - just two dirty mattresses. It was to be there sleeping quarters for many months.
Marek composes himself with care before detailing the horrors that followed. The men had been trafficked against their will for an unscrupulous gang-master and were put to work in various car washes. They worked a relentless 15-hour day without pay and were given portions of food rationed so that they were just about able to sustain themselves. A lack of protective clothing meant they suffered permanent burns on their hands and legs from the chemicals used to wash the cars. Each evening they were transported back to the filthy storage room. Early on, provoked beyond endurance, they confronted their captors and demanded to be freed. The response was a brutal beating which had a damaging impact on Pavel’s health.
But the day came when, as Marek was being transported between jobs, he was momentarily left unattended. Seizing the opportunity he escaped and over two days walked and hitched to London where, traumatised and disorientated, he went to the police and from there was directed to the Czech Embassy, connected to Thames Reach and booked into a safe house.
There then followed a painstaking exercise to locate the notorious storage room, with the objective of springing Pavel from his prison. Marek knew that they had been driven to the south coast and the name of the town included the word ‘sea’. Poring over a map of the south coast, he was eventually able to identify the name of the town. Marek knew that he had been held close to a railway station and opposite a Chinese restaurant. On Google maps, he painstakingly viewed pictures of all the Chinese restaurants in the town until, finally, the restaurant and adjacent storage room were identified. Armed with this information, the police broke into the storage room and rescued Pavel and he too was taken to a safe house for victims of trafficking. Both men are now being supported at home in the Czech Republic, though the mental and physical damage wrought by their experience will take many years to recover from.
This is the extraordinary reality facing a group of vulnerable men prepared to take risks in the face of devastating levels of unemployment in their own countries and the lure of comparative riches in the UK. Thames Reach has helped 81 men escape forced labour situations, working closely with partners including the Salvation Army, the UK Human Trafficking Centre and the Human Trafficking Foundation. We fear that there are thousands of people being trafficked into forced labour situations and that most traffickers remain undetected.
Disturbingly, in the case of those people contacted and ensnared by traffickers within the UK, particularly fertile recruiting environments include homeless day centres and soup runs. In a case last year with which we were closely involved, the Hungarian man who was trafficked met his exploiters at a soup run in Westminster. Apparently the standard spiel is...’it doesn’t have to be like this, queuing up in the rain for soup, come with me and earn good money’. Thankfully there are day centres such as the Passage in Victoria which assertively protects their users from the white van waiting around outside, the one which squeals away when approached by staff.
On the 18th October organisations supporting people escaping from forced labour captivity are raising awareness by marking the day as Anti-Slavery Day. Slavery! Can this really be happening here, by the seaside? But Marek’s is a true story and we need to be shaken out of our somnolence because, to steal from Johnny Rotten, there is no future in England’s dreaming.
Because of a continuing police investigation, the names of the trafficked men have been changed to protect their identity and the seaside town where they were held captive cannot be divulged.
This blog was first published in Inside Housing on 6th September 2013