Peter Taylor-Whiffen discusses how the industry is trying to stop modern slavery within the sector.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that the waste and resources sector has historically been a popular destination for people traffickers. Now the industry is fighting back by raising awareness of modern slavery and the danger signs to look out for.
It probably seemed like a dream come true: a chance to escape poverty for a new life and new job, with the guarantee of a good wage, secure employment and a roof over their heads.
But for three Polish workers who signed up to sort waste on a conveyor belt at a UK recycling plant, that dream quickly turned into a nightmare.
Their accommodation was a squalid, cramped, rat-infested room. They received £5 a week. They suffered regular intimidation and threats of violence. And while their unwitting employer was Biffa Waste Services, their actual paylords were an eight-strong human-trafficking gang.
Now the industry is fighting back by raising awareness of modern slavery and the danger signs to look out for.
The horrific reality is that, in our industry, this case is probably the tip of the iceberg. More than 100,000 people in the UK are thought to be trapped in modern-day slavery (MDS) and, according to a shocking report by global anti-trafficking charity Hope for Justice, two-thirds of these people have been placed in waste-management facilities at some point.
It’s easy to understand why our industry is a prime target for slave traffickers. Its many low-skilled jobs are an attractive solution for people who lack qualifications, speak little English, have no money and are desperate for work.
In some circumstances, bosses struggling to employ workers into what are often seen as undesirable jobs might be tempted to take on short-term staff without asking enough of the right questions. Waste management’s large number of temporary positions also makes it easy for criminals to move their victims from site to site.
In the above example, Biffa employed the two men and one woman in 2014, through an employment agency, unaware that they were among 400 victims trafficked to the UK by a Polish gang to work in farms, poultry factories, and other recycling facilities around the UK. The gang was caught after two of their victims escaped, revealing the largest modern slavery network ever exposed in the UK. Its members were jailed for up to 11 years each.
The case prompted the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act, which requires businesses with a turnover of at least £36m to publish an annual statement outlining their action to “identify, prevent and mitigate modern slavery”. But our industry is still vulnerable – so what are we doing about it?
The good news is that waste management is proactively fighting this battle on many fronts. Many UK organisations have signed up to Hope for Justice’s Slave-Free Alliance – a “critical friend to organisations, supporting them to protect their operations, supply chains and people from modern slavery and labour exploitation”.
The good news is that waste management is proactively fighting this battle on many fronts.
In October 2022, ESA and CIWM helped launch the Indirect Procurement Human Rights (IPHR) Forum’s Waste and Recycling Modern Day Slavery Protocol, the signatories to which pledge to have a management system related to MDS and demonstrate accountability and a clear process to escalate cases to appropriate authorities.
Materials Recycling World has an ongoing “Root It Out” campaign, highlighting and preventing exploitation in the industry. In December, the Local Government Agency (LGA) also launched its Council Guide to Tackling Modern Slavery, highlighting how waste companies and others can work with local authorities on the issue.
Biffa is among several waste-management firms to embrace these initiatives – it was a founder member of the Slave-Free Alliance and its HR business partner, Afiya Howe, played a key role in drafting the IPHR protocol.
We are committed to becoming an industry leader in anti-slavery practices.
“We are committed to becoming an industry leader in anti-slavery practices,” she says. “We work closely with Hope for Justice, promoting awareness of MDS across our business, supply chains and the wider industry, and have developed a network of freedom champions to let colleagues know what support is available.”
However, such laws and protocols won’t, by themselves, deter criminals trying to infiltrate our industry. So what can you do to help?
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health highlights several signs to look out for in your fellow employees. They might be distrustful of authorities, look uneasy, unkempt or malnourished, show signs of psychological trauma or have untreated injuries. Other indicators include signs of substance abuse, not knowing a home address, or being dropped off and picked up from work in groups.
Everyone in the waste industry must protect their fellow workers, says Slave-Free Alliance accounts director Susan Banister. “Be nosy. Check IDs – do employees have access to them? Abolish language barriers with independent translators and know who is working for you – where do they live, how did they get the job? You’re looking for any absence of normal.”
It’s a good idea to engage with your labour provider, advises Banister, as they can still be the “weakest link”.
It’s a good idea to engage with your labour provider, advises Banister, as they can still be the “weakest link”. Being vigilant could make all the difference when it comes to protecting individuals and making slave traffickers less likely to think our industry is an easy target.
“Engage colleagues, leaders, suppliers and partners in your efforts to fight modern-day slavery,” she adds. “We all have a part to play.”
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