Press Association, July 5, 2019
The UK’s largest modern slavery ring, which forced more than 400 people to work for a pittance while their criminal masters earned £2m, has been smashed.
A three-year police investigation uncovered an organised criminal gang led by the Brzezinski family, which preyed on homeless people, ex-prisoners and alcoholics from Poland.
The ring lured and then trafficked vulnerable people to the UK with the promise of good money, but instead housed them in squalor and used them as what a judge described as “commodities”.
Victims were paid as little as 50p for a day’s labour and in one case a worker was given coffee and a chicken as payment for redecorating a house.
Another man had to wash in a canal because he had no other access to water, while one house was so rundown that a leaking toilet had to be plugged with a duvet.
One victim said: “I would say some homeless people here in the UK live better than I lived after I arrived over here.”
Hungry victims went to soup kitchens and food banks and many made their own cigarettes from butts off the street.
Meanwhile, the gang’s bosses wore lavish clothes and drove luxury cars, including a Bentley.
After the end of two trials, it can now be reported how five men and three women, all originally from Poland and all convicted of modern slavery offences and money-laundering, exploited their destitute victims for “greed”.
Jurors heard the accounts of more than 90 victims, but it is believed at least 350 more had been used by the gang and had since either returned to Poland, could not be traced or were too afraid to come forward.
At the end of the second case last month, a jury at Birmingham crown court convicted two men, Ignacy Brzezinski, 52, of West Bromwich, and Wojciech Nowakowski, 41, of Birmingham, of modern slavery offences. A third, Jan Sadowski, 26, of West Bromwich, admitted his part on the first day of the trial. Nowakowski and Sadowski were to be sentenced on Friday.
At a previous trial ending in February, the following people were convicted of their roles in the gang: the leading conspirator Marek Chowanic, 30, of Walsall, Ignacy’s cousin, Marek Brzezinski, 50, of Tipton; a recruitment consultant, Julianna Chodakiewicz, 24, of Evesham; the group’s matriarch, Justyna Parczewska, 48, of West Bromwich; and Natalia Zmuda, 29, of Walsall.
At their sentencing in March, Judge Mary Stacey said the “degradation” of fellow humans had been “totally unacceptable” and jailed each of them for between four-and-a-half and 11 years.
She said the defendants had subjected people to a “demi-life of misery and poverty”, robbing them of their dignity and humanity “without care or regard for the rights of the individuals affected”.
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 group helped target and traffick people from their Polish homeland, placing them in cramped, rat-infested accommodation in the Black Country and putting them to work on farms, and at waste recycling centres and poultry factories.
In some cases, the gang waited outside jails in Poland to approach people who had just been released.
Victims, aged from 17 to over 60, were housed across at least nine different addresses in West Bromwich, Walsall, Sandwell and Smethwick, sleeping 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, while “house spies” – previously trafficked individuals turned informers – kept an eye on the workers.
On several occasions, 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, was refused medical attention, and was then 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 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 their names using bogus addresses. The criminal masters also claimed benefits on behalf of the victims without their knowledge.
The ring infiltrated a recruitment agency, meaning work could be directly sourced without raising suspicions with third parties.
Victims would be “frog-marched” to cashpoints to withdraw money and told they owed debts for transport, rent and food, Hope for Justice said.
When one worker died of natural causes, Parczewska ordered that his ID and personal effects be removed from his pockets before paramedics arrived.
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. Investigators believe it is the largest such criminal prosecution of its type in Europe, to date.
The operation was smashed after victims were found by Hope for Justice. The charity said 51 of them eventually made contact through its outreach efforts at two drop-in centres. It then flagged the slavery ring’s existence to police and an investigation was launched in February 2015.
Opening the second of two trials, Caroline Haughey QC, 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.”
The judge heard on Friday that Ignacy Brzezinski had skipped bail since his conviction.