A fruit picker harvesting gooseberries, UK

‘HMOs are central to the operation of traffickers’

Interview with an investigator working with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.
03 August 2020 , Adrian Finbow

During the pandemic EHPs have had to adapt and change they way they work, and the scourge of modern slavery (MS) has not been halted by the virus. EHN Extra recently heard from one local authority that, unable to physically visit suspect HMOs, has been disrupting activity, and strengthening partnerships with police and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA). Here we speak with GLAA investigator Adrian Finbow.

As told to Katie Coyne

How has the pandemic affected your work?

COVID-19 has had a limited effect on us. [It’s probably had a greater impact] for the office workers who had to shift to working from home. But apart from that and those that had to shelter, there has been little effect on our day-to-day investigation of MS offences. In terms of the [MS] industry there has been a shortage of workers especially with those that decided to return home as the virus was taking effect and now cannot get back to the UK. But investigations and the frequency of new work has remained stable.

Why is there so much MS in the South East of England?

In relation to the South East we have a high population of workers from Romania, both Romanian and Roma Gypsy workers who are two distinct cultures. It seems that the attraction, especially to Norfolk and even more Suffolk, is the fact that there are so many employment opportunities in the region and correspondingly low rental values making it an attractive area to come to. Also it is not that far from the point of entry to the UK at Dover. In terms of employment we are obviously right on the edge of the Fenland district, which is mostly farming/fruit/flowers. Regionally we also have a multitude of poultry and animal processing factories that pay good wages and are easy to get to.

Why are you so focused on illegal HMOs?

HMOs are a central point to the operation of the traffickers. The business model they operate will often include ‘free’ accommodation and this will be in the form of HMOs. Of course they are not free but are part of the overall con practiced by the traffickers, who will take control of the workers’ bank accounts. They will openly tell them they will earn, say, £50 a day, which to a Romanian worker is big money. The truth is that they are actually earning a lot more but don’t realise it: the traffickers are taking the balance for payments of rent etc which they promised was free. HMOs and accommodation are integral to this con and form the necessary elements of modern slavery.

What are the challenges of this work?

Working with victims of trafficking is challenging at best. The victims often come from very poor back grounds and have little or no education. They come from a culture where corruption is rife and authorities cannot be trusted and so their lack of trust extends to the UK. They are also briefed by the traffickers who will tell them that if they engage with the authorities in the UK, we will send them home and they will never work in the UK again. This is completely untrue. But being in a in a foreign country, with no money, no English and often no idea that there is help available, or if they do, where to get it; it is the perfect storm. It is an uphill struggle trying to win their trust.

A few weeks ago we rescued six workers from the Haverhill area and a factory employer has been fantastic and very cooperative and gave them full time contracts. It is now funding hotel rooms for them until they can find suitable accommodation.

How can EHPs help?

If EH officers have intelligence or information about an HMO that concerns them but they cannot get access they should share the information with the police or the GLAA as they are very often linked to MS. We can conduct safeguarding checks and if we think we cannot gain access by consent could obtain a Section 8 MCA warrant to enter and search for evidence of MS. The police have additional powers to safeguard life and limb.

My advice as always would be to share the information with the GLAA and the police. We have an intel email address, [email protected]. I would encourage your members to use this as much as possible. If we can’t help we can pass it on to those that can. But as HMOs are an integral part of the operations of traffickers I would encourage your members to work with us and report it.

What information is useful?

As much as possible – but in particular the numbers involved and the nationality of the residents. Many unlicensed HMOs used by traffickers will be used as simply a place to sleep with bed shifts that mean the beds are being used 24hrs a day on a rota basis. This will mean a huge amount of residents who are often told to use rear entrances if possible to avoid public attention.

What legislation have you found useful?

I think the changes to the definition of an HMO has been more of an advantage. The reduction in the number of floors and number of multiple families must be a help to enforce an unlicensed HMO. Enforcement is key to disruption. What helps you must help us and joint working must be promoted. Intelligence is key to the bigger picture and the sharing of information is vital. Rogue landlords are happy to cut corners just to get the money in and very often a blind eye is turned to safety within the home.

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