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Human traffickers with links to recycling sites jailed

The ringleaders of a Polish human-trafficking ring that forced more than 300 victims to work in a variety of jobs including at recycling sites across the West Midlands have been jailed in what is the biggest ever modern slavery prosecution in the UK.

Three people were sentenced at Birmingham Crown Court on Friday (5 July), while five others were imprisoned earlier this year, after forcing hundreds of vulnerable victims to work long hours in a series of jobs for as little as £10 a week after being lured from Poland to Birmingham on the promise of well-paid and stable employment.

Human traffickers with links to recycling sites jailed
Marek Chowaniec (left), 30, and Natalia Zmuda (right), 29.
The gangmasters housed their victims, many of whom were homeless and suffering from addictions, in squalid and cramped accommodation. They were provided with such little food that they were forced to turn to soup kitchens in Birmingham – the increase in Polish people attending a soup kitchen run by charity Hope for Justice was reported to West Midlands Police, which then launched an investigation.

The workers were forced to do jobs for next to nothing including picking onions, making fencing and sorting parcels, as well as work at recycling sites across the area. The traffickers also forced the victims to claim benefits and then pocketed the money, telling the workers that the money they kept was for outstanding accommodation, food and travel costs.

If workers tried to flee they were assaulted or threatened, with many having their property stolen. The traffickers are estimated to have made around £2.46 million from withheld wages and benefits, using the proceeds to purchase high-end cars, amongst other items.

Read more: Hidden chains: Modern slavery in the recycling sector

As part of the West Midlands Police investigation, 61 victims gave evidence against a large number of defendants, leading the case to be split into two trials. Evidence such as bank cards in the names of victims and thousands of pounds in cash uncovered at addresses used by the gang, particularly Beechwood Road in West Bromwich, were key to securing the convictions.

On 22 February 2019, Marek Chowaniec, 30, Marek Brezinski, 29, and Natalia Zmuda, 29, were each found guilty of people trafficking and forced labour offences. On 26 June 2019, Ignacy Brzezinski and Wojciech Nowakowski were convicted for their involvement, Jan Sadowski pleaded guilty at the beginning of trial 2 on 23 April 2019. Sentencing was delivered on Friday.

In total, eight defendants have been convicted for their role in the conspiracy across two trials at Birmingham Crown Court.

Largest modern slavery prosecution

Organised crime in the recycling sector has come under increasing scrutiny in recent times, with notable convictions for gangs found guilty of human trafficking and forced labour in Newcastle and Birmingham in the last couple of years instrumental in shining a light on the issue.

Commenting on the sentencing, Mark Paul, Head of Complex Casework Unit, CPS West Midlands, said: “This is the largest modern slavery prosecution of its kind in the UK and perhaps in Europe.

“The scale of the operation was truly staggering, with millions of pounds netted by the crime group as a result of their callous and systematic exploitation of vulnerable members of the Polish community.

“88 victims came forward but the investigation revealed in excess of 300 other probable victims. Vulnerable men and women were recruited off the streets in Poland with the promise of a better life, only to be cruelly exploited and trapped into a desperate cycle of dependency with nowhere else to go.

“The gang not only stole the victims’ money but took away their freedom, using threats and violence to bully them and control their lives.

“That this should be happening in Britain today is shocking and we hope these convictions will help to highlight that it can happen in plain sight, and stand as another landmark in the fight against modern slavery.”

Convictions

Trial 1

  • Marek Chowanec, aged 30. Total of 11 years' imprisonment: trafficking into the UK (four years' imprisonment), trafficking into the UK (nine years), trafficking within the UK (11 years), conspiracy to require another to perform forced labour (seven years), conspiracy to require another to perform forced labour (11 years), money laundering (seven years);
  • Marek Brzezinski, aged 29. Total of nine years' imprisonment: trafficking into the UK (five years' imprisonment), trafficking into the UK (seven years), trafficking within the UK (seven years), trafficking into the UK (nine years), conspiracy to require another to perform forced labour (seven years), conspiracy to require another to perform forced labour (nine years), money laundering (six years);
  • Julianna Chodakiewicz, aged 29. Total of 5-and-a-half years’ imprisonment: conspiracy to require another to perform forced labour (five years), conspiracy to require another to perform forced labour (five years, six months), money laundering (five years);
  • Natalia Zmuda, aged 29. Total of four-and-a-half years’ imprisonment: trafficking into the UK (three years), trafficking within the UK (four years), trafficking within the UK (four years six months), conspiracy to require another to perform forced labour (four years), conspiracy to require another to perform forced labour (four years six months), money laundering (three years);
  • Justyna Parczewska, aged 48. Total of five years' imprisonment: conspiracy to require another to perform forced labour (five years), conspiracy to require another to perform forced labour (five years), money laundering (five years); and
  • Slavery trafficking risk orders imposed for nine years following release.

Trial 2

  • Ignacy Brzezinski, aged 53. Total of 11 years' imprisonment;
  • Wojciech Nowakowski, aged 42. Total of six-and-a-half years' imprisonment; and
  • Jan Pawal Sadowski, aged 29. Total of three years’ imprisonment.

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