UK’s largest modern slavery gang trafficked more than 400 victims

Vulnerable victims including homeless people and ex-prisoners forced to live in squalor as they earned ringleaders millions

Chris Baynes
Friday 05 July 2019 23:01 BST
Modern slavery gang members jailed for more than 50 years

A human trafficking ring which made £2m by exploiting hundreds of vulnerable victims has been dismantled following the UK’s largest modern slavery investigation.

More than 400 people – many of them homeless, ex-prisoners or alcoholics – were forced to work for almost nothing after being lured to the west midlands by a well-organised Polish gang.

The ringleaders told victims they would earn good money in the UK but instead placed them in cramped, rat-infested accommodation and forced them to work on farms, rubbish recycling centres and poultry factories.

They were paid as little as 50p an hour for their labour and in one case a worker was given just coffee and a chicken for redecorating a house.

The victims – aged between 17 and 60 – had to use soup kitchens and food banks to eat, while one man was forced to wash in a canal because he had no other access to water.

“I would say some homeless people here in the UK live better than I lived after I arrived over here,” one victim said.

Meanwhile, the gang’s bosses enjoyed a lavish lifestyle off the back of the exploitation, wearing expensive clothes and driving luxury cars including a Bentley.

Eight gang members – who police say were part of two Polish crime families – have been jailed for modern slavery offences and money laundering, it can now be reported, after the second of two trials ended.

A judge said the five men and three women were motivated by greed to exploit their destitute victims and had no “care or regard for the rights of the individuals affected”.

“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”, said Mark Paul, head of the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) west midlands complex casework unit.

He added: “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.”

Jurors heard the accounts of 88 victims, but it is believed at least 350 more had passed through the gang’s hands and could either not be traced by UK police or were too scared to come forward.

In the most recent trial, a jury at Birmingham Crown Court convicted two of the ringleaders – Ignacy Brzezinski, 52, of Beechwood Road, West Bromwich, and Wojciech Nowakowski, 41, of James Turner Street, Birmingham – of modern slavery offences.

The gang’s victims were promised a better life in the UK but were forced to live in squalor (PA)

A third, Jan Sadowski, 26, of Dartmouth Street, West Bromwich, admitted his part on the first day of the trial last month.

Sentencing Ignacy to 11 years on Friday, judge Mary Stacey said the “high functioning alcoholic” had “direct control” over the trafficking ring and lived “in the nerve centre of the organisation”.

She added: “As the head of the family, he set the tone of the operation, and also enjoyed the fruits of the conspiracy, riding round in his Bentley and a fleet of high performance cars at his disposal.”

Ignacy had “abused the compassion of the court” by going on the run following his conviction after being granted bail because he had broken his leg in a fall in court, the judge said.

Nowakowski, who was jailed for six and a half years, was a one-time victim of the ring who had risen to become a “spy and enforcer” for the gang.

Ms Stacey said: “He was fully embedded and his role was to keep the conspirators in line.

“Described as a top dog and perhaps a sergeant major, he enjoyed the power over the others.”

Ignacy Brzezinski was a ringleader in the gang (PA)

Another gang ringleader, Marek Chowanic was convicted at the end of the first trial in February, along with Brzezinski’s cousin Marek Brzezinski, recruitment consultant Julianna Chodakiewicz, the group’s matriarch Justyna Parczewska, and Natalia Zmuda.

They were jailed for between four and a half years and 11 years by the judge, who said the victims had endured “degradation” and a “demi-life of misery and poverty” at the hands of the gang.

She added: “Any lingering complacency after the 2007 bicentenary celebrations of the abolition of the English Slave Trade Act was misplaced.

“The hard truth is that the practice continues, here in the UK, often hiding in plain sight.”

The Polish gang targeted vulnerable people in their homeland, in some cases waiting at the front gates of prisons to approach people who had just been released.

Victims were housed across at least nine different addresses in West Bromwich, Walsall, Sandwell and Smethwick, crammed up to four to a room, fed out-of-date food, and forced to scavenge for mattresses to sleep on. Some had no working toilets, heating or furniture.

If any complained, gang enforcers would humiliate, threaten or beat them up, while “house spies” – previously trafficked individuals turned trusted informers – kept an eye on the workers.

Anti-slavery investigators with the charity Hope for Justice and West Midlands Police uncovered shocking brutality against those who stepped out of line.

One man who complained about living conditions and pay had his arm broken and was refused medical care, before being ejected from the accommodation because his injury left him unable to work.

Another was stripped naked in front of other workers, doused in surgical chemical iodine, and told that the gang would remove his kidneys if he did not keep quiet.

The gang seized identity cards, registered victims for national insurance and opened bank accounts in the victims’ names using bogus addresses, while their criminal masters also claimed benefits without their knowledge.

The trafficking ring also infiltrated a recruitment agency, meaning work could be directly sourced, without raising suspicions with third parties.

Victims would in some cases be “frog-marched” to cashpoints to withdraw money and told they owed debts for transport costs, rent and food.

When one worker died of natural causes at an address controlled by the gang, Parczewska ordered that his ID and personal effects be removed from his pockets before paramedics arrived.

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Ms Stacey said the conspiracy, which ran from June 2012 until October 2017, was the “most ambitious, extensive and prolific” modern day slavery network ever uncovered.

The CPS said it believed the gang’s convictions marked the largest modern slavery case in Europe to date.

The gang’s network collapsed after two victims fled their captors in 2015 and spoke to Hope for Justice.

The charity said 51 of the victims eventually made contact through its painstaking outreach efforts at two drop-in centres.

West Midlands Police then launched an investigation in February 2015.

Opening the second of two trials, Caroline Haughey, prosecuting, said: “When you are deprived of your freedoms and exploited for your weakness, that is criminal – and it is of such exploitation and degradation that this case concerns – where human beings have become commodities.”

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