Authorities were out in force in East Sussex yesterday morning (Monday, January 13) as part of a police operation to crack down on modern slavery.
A roadside sting on the A21 in Hastings, near St John’s Cross Roundabout, saw officers from the specialist modern slavery and human-trafficking police unit ‘Discovery’ flag down any vehicles they found to be suspicious.
The police were joined by other agencies which included Surrey and Sussex Road Policing Unit, the Gangmaster and Labour Abuse Authority, King’s Church anti-trafficking team and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency.
White transit vans with more than one passenger were of particular interest to the authorities.
DC Amanda Snashall from Sussex Police said, “The work we have done, the enquiries and the intel we have gathered suggests that vans, a particular type of van, are bringing workers into Hastings on a fairly regular basis.”
The unit started the day at 7am and stopped about five to six vehicles but none of the men spoken to at the checkpoint were found to be involved in modern slavery.
DC Snashall said nail bars, construction sites, car washes and homeless exploitation are typical scenarios where modern slavery is rife.
DC Snashall said, “It’s a very complex crime. It’s difficult to identify victims and a lot of them don’t identify themselves as victims.
“It’s all about coercion and control which the victims are subjected to by their employers, that’s why it makes it very difficult for us to identify, because that person could be solely reliant on their boss’s money, home, language and for just about everything.”
DC Snashall listed the key indicators the unit look out for in victims and perpetrators.
She said, “If you’ve got eight people who are washing your car and they are only charging you a tenner; how on earth are they paying that person £8.50 an hour? They won’t be. That would be an indicator.
“Some of the other indicators are that the victims won’t be registered with the Department for Work and Pensions so they’re absolutely under the radar of any kind of authority figure, they haven’t got their ID as they are taken away, their living accommodation, appearance, whether they’ve got health and medical abilities and language is a big barrier.”
DC Mark Charlton, who was also at the roadside check stop, said the targeted van may have by-passed the operation due to social media ‘chatter’.
DC Charlton said, “We would advise people that you are actually stopping good work and potentially stopping victims being found and taken into protection.
“As soon as the police or an operation like this has been noted you will get a lot of chatter on social media that will report police locations. It’s hindering our work. We are not here to prosecute people, we are here to help victims.”
Natalie Williams, from King’s Church anti-trafficking team, works with victims both immediately after they have been rescued and in the long term to help them rebuild their lives.
She said, “There are people who are being treated in disgusting ways and we want them to know they are valued and that they can have a life different to what they have been put through.
“When you’ve been a victim of modern slavery you have had your whole life ruined. You’ve had everything taken away from you. You’ve been forced to do things you didn’t want to do. You’ve had no freedom. To rebuild from that is not a short term thing.”
Natalie said the church helps victims in a variety of ways and has seen successful cases where victims have turned their lives around.
She said, “Sometimes it’s just sitting with someone and saying ‘are you okay?’, just a bit of human kindness and then from that point onwards it’s about walking a journey with people.
“In Hastings and East Sussex in general there are some victims who have gone on to seek asylum here and basically been given the best treatment Britain can give in terms of healthcare provision after they’ve been abused quite extensively, but some have found friends, found support, managed to get a job, become part of a community.”
Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne said, “It’s really invidious. You are taking vulnerable people and you are abusing them. We are not like that as a country. We believe in a decent salary for a day’s work. We look after people who work hard.
“This today is part of the ongoing enforcement programme. The message to the public is: if you see it and you’re not sure, report it to the police as a non-emergency, because it is your intelligence that has helped very much put this operation up today.
“Just because something is cheaper doesn’t mean to say the whole chain of employment behind that is better. Keep your eyes and ears open and let’s put a strong message out to employers that we don’t tolerate it.”