Modern day slavery 'not going to go away on its own'
- Credit: Cambs Cops
Eight years after a police operation uncovered the scale of modern-day slavery in Fenland, a conference in Wisbech will be told that it’s still with us and is “not going to go away on its own.”
Rosmini Centre manager Anita Grodkiewicz said: “Exploitation of vulnerable people – modern slavery – is happening in Fenland.”
Ms Grodkiewicz, one of the speakers at the conference, said: “We've got to raise awareness further and fight modern-day slavery, because it's not going to go away on its own.”
She has been at the forefront of working with Eastern European arrivals in Wisbech and tackling exploitation: in 2018 she was awarded the MBE for her services to the community.
Many locally only became aware of the extent of the problem in the Fens when in 2013 nine people were arrested and two recruitment agencies had their licenses suspended.
It followed a day of action against the exploitation of workers.
In total about 300 police and partner agency officers and staff were involved.
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Raids and arrests took place at eight properties in Wisbech, March and King's Lynn.
Three years later two men and two women were jailed for a total of more than 23 years after Operation Pheasant secured a significant conviction to end exploitation of migrant workers in the Wisbech area.
But it hasn’t ended yet.
The online conference on February 25 and hosted by Wisbech and Fenland Museum, will bring together organisations fighting modern slavery.
Researchers and curators from British museums focussing on slavery, trafficking and exploitation will also take part.
The conference will be formally opened by the UK's Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner Dame Sara Thornton.
Local speakers include DS Chris Acourt from Cambridgeshire's multi-agency taskforce Operation Pheasant, that includes Fenland Council, police, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and Home Office Immigration Enforcement.
Chris has been working on the modern slavery team for around six years based out of Wisbech.
Operation Pheasant has tackled many areas of concern including examples of where people, mainly from Eastern Europe, are recruited in their home countries with false promises of getting a good job in England.
The recruitment targets vulnerable people, who may be uneducated or single people (including single mothers) and all of whom are unemployed.
When they arrive in Wisbech, victims are brought to shared overcrowded houses and have to pay rent in advance, including a deposit.
They are informed that there is no work for one week. But this message is repeated every week until their savings have been exhausted and they get into debt. This increased reliance on the exploiter is known as debt bondage.
Victims are moved around to different properties under the control of a ‘rent collector’, often linked to a rogue property agent and unlicensed gangmasters, to avoid individuals being found.
The exploiter takes the passports and encourages the victims to open multiple bank accounts. These bank accounts are used for fraud. Their identities are also used for taking out loans without their knowledge. The living conditions are often unsafe, overcrowded and very poor.
The modern-day slavery conference is going ahead online after it was cancelled last spring immediately before national lockdown. Everyone is welcome to join it free by booking a place via the Wisbech Museum website.
It follows on from the Modern Slavery Summit held in Wisbech in March 2017.
Organiser Sarah Coleman of Wisbech and Fenland Museum said: “We have an amazing line-up of speakers,”
These include Simon John, of human rights organisation Anti-Slavery International which Wisbech abolitionist Thomas Clarkson co-founded in 1839, will be in attendance.
Ms Coleman added: “The conference is also providing opportunities for young people from Fenland to gain skills in the workplace as the 20Twenty Productions team will be helping to run the event.”
The museum and town’s historic connection to anti-slavery work featured last year on BBC Two's Inside Culture and on Enslaved, the documentary series by Samuel L Jackson.