At least 33 companies ‘unwittingly’ paid an organised criminal gang that placed hundreds of Romanian victims onto construction sites.
A report by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner revealed that a criminal gang placed up to 500 victims on building sites in London and the South East between 2009 and 2018.
The analysis was based on interviews across the supply chain and relied on an investigation by the Metropolitan Police, whose investigators said that the number of businesses uncovered was “only a fraction” of the total.
The companies that paid into the bank accounts of the Lupus gang included contractors, agencies and payroll umbrella firms. The cumulative transactions for each business ranged from £100s to £100,000s.
It is estimated that between 300 and 500 victims were placed on construction and demolition sites during the 10-year period. The gang is thought to have made about £2.4m from the slave-labour ring, while their victims received as little as £18 per day and were forced to live in “cockroach and rat-infested properties owned or managed by the criminal network”.
The organised criminal gang found various ways to skirt around security on construction sites. The victims were usually placed in roles such as cleaning or general labour jobs, since these were less scrutinised than skilled trades. However, the gang also worked in hand with a corrupt skills-testing facility, which helped them to get hold of CSCS cards – which provide proof that individuals working on construction sites have the appropriate training – fraudulently in order to place slave-labour victims in skilled roles.
The police also found that fake health and safety accreditation and qualifications were submitted and accepted by construction employers. Often, this meant that a worker was placed in a dangerous job without being trained to do it.
The flexibility of labour contracts was also misused, by which a replacement worker was sent to a job, and workers were therefore easily moved around.
Of the 33 firms that were identified, one was a subcontractor that learned that 12 workers were potential victims, but continued to keep them on site in order to protect them from the gang and assist the police.
The construction director also moved all of the victims onto one large site and reduced their workload, since the workers were frail and living in inhuman situations, without proper facilities and food. The contractor also introduced a pilot free-food scheme on a few sites, as a way to feed the workers. Once the investigation was complete, it was found that the members of the gang had themselves joined the company as self-employed workers in order to familiarise themselves with the system.
The construction director said it was very hard to spot the signs of modern slavery. “Our advice to other organisations is: ask awkward questions. Make sure people are who you think they are. This is a bigger problem than the industry realises.”
The anti-slavery report also warns that, given the shortage of labour in construction, there is a huge risk of modern slavery along the supply chain. “There are concerns that, when under pressure, businesses could ignore the usual protocols and processes for bringing workers on site,” it adds. The risk has worsened during the pandemic and amid the labour shortages that have been accentuated by workers leaving the UK following Brexit.
Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Dame Sara Thornton, whose office published the report, said: “While the sector is striving to meet its sustainability and carbon targets, it faces particular challenges in the ethical management of labour. Operation Cardinas is a harrowing reminder that no organisation can afford to be complacent, and that every worker has a role to play in spotting the signs.”
She also called on the government to make leadership-level changes by creating a single enforcement body that brings together the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and HMRC’s National Minimum Wage team.
The commissioner’s office declined to reveal the names of the 33 identified firms.
Three members of a Romanian family, the Lupus, who were involved in the gang were jailed for 10 years; six others people from the gang are awaiting sentencing in a Romanian court.
Construction News has previously gone undercover with a BBC team to report on the ease of acquiring slave labour in the UK.