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Three victims of trafficking and modern slavery to sue Biffa

The Guardian - Thu Jan 14 06:00

Three victims of trafficking and modern slavery who were subcontracted to sort rubbish for the national waste and recycling firm Biffa Waste Services are to launch legal proceedings to sue the firm for damages.

The claimants, who spoke no English, were trafficked from Poland to the UK in 2014 and 2015 and were placed in work with Biffa, sorting rubbish on a conveyor belt, via an employment agency.

Although they were paid for their work by the company, their wages were transferred into bank accounts that the organised crime group had opened in their names, and which they were unable to access. Solicitors acting for the two men and one woman said they received about £5 a week in cash for their work.

A pre-action letter sent to Biffa by Leigh Day solicitors on behalf of the three victims states that the company has a responsibility to prevent forced labour within its workforce. Parallel proceedings will be launched against Smart Solutions, the employment agency which placed the workers in jobs in Biffa recycling plants.

Around 400 people from Poland are believed to have been trafficked by the same criminal organisation to work in farms, poultry factories and various other recycling centres across Britain, working through a number of different recruitment agencies. Most were promised proper jobs before they left Poland, but were housed in substandard accommodation and were paid as little as 50p an hour, picking onions, making fencing and sorting waste.

West Midlands police uncovered the work of the Polish-run criminal gang after a three-year investigation into what was later described as Britain’s largest modern slavery ring, and eight people were jailed in 2019. Investigations began in 2015 after two victims escaped and were helped by the anti-slavery charity Hope for Justice.

Leigh Day solicitor Liana Wood, representing the three victims, said: “Our clients have been through horrific experiences at the hands of an organised and far reaching criminal gang. The perpetrators of these crimes have been convicted but our clients believe that answers still need to be sought about the structures that enabled this exploitation to take place in plain sight.

“Our clients’ case is that companies have a duty to prevent modern slavery in their workplace: it is very unlikely that these crimes could have taken place if proper procedures had been in place to prevent them. It appears that a blind eye was turned while vulnerable people went through these terrible ordeals.”

She said her clients, who were housed in squalid, overcrowded accommodation, were seeking exemplary damages and damages related to psychiatric injury, as well as seeking to reclaim the wages they never received.

A spokesperson for Biffa said: “Biffa takes a zero tolerance approach to modern slavery. We cooperated fully with West Midlands police at the time of this investigation in 2016. We regularly review our practices and protocols to ensure we continually follow best practice … All allegations against Biffa are denied and will be defended in any court proceedings.”

Smart Solutions said it had been working with West Midlands police since 2015 to assist investigations.

“Since we were first made aware that our workforce had been infiltrated, we have worked tirelessly to ensure that we are continuously developing in our approach to hidden labour exploitation. We work to educate our clients, supply chains and external businesses so, as a collective, we can try and put an end to Modern Day slavery,” a spokesperson said.