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Modern slavery a serious issue for UK businesses, says expert, as two jailed for exploiting workers

Businesses must be alert to the risks of modern slavery in their UK supply chains, and not just overseas, an expert has said, after two brothers were sentenced to six years in prison for exploiting at least 18 workers from their native Poland.24 Jan 2017

Erwin and Krystian Markowski lured vulnerable Polish people to the UK with promises of travel, work and accommodation and took control of their finances and communications. The victims, who were identified by 'spotters' in Poland and were generally jobless or in need of money, were given only around a third of their earnings from warehouse work in Derbyshire arranged by the Markowskis, according to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

The Markowskis pleaded guilty to two charges : conspiracy to arrange travel with a view to exploitation and conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation. A further charge of conspiracy to require a person to perform forced labour was left on file.

"This illustrates that this is a serious issue for UK businesses and that conditions amounting to slavery are relevant to operations here – it is not just something to think of in terms of operating with suppliers in high risk territories," said regulatory law expert Sean Elson of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.

"The high degree of publicity shown in this case should act as a reminder to ensure that businesses are addressing these concerns, and have measures in place to highlight and address areas of risk. This should go beyond paper exercises created only for the purpose of producing the annual statement required by law," he said.

Along with consolidating and simplifying existing anti-slavery laws, the 2015 Modern Slavery Act introduced new reporting requirements for businesses. Organisations with a turnover or group turnover of £36 million or more which are either incorporated in the UK or carry on a business in the UK must now report annually on the steps that they have taken during the financial year to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place in their own business or in their supply chains.

The legislation does not, however, require businesses to take any anti-slavery steps themselves.

Janine Smith, chief prosecutor of CPS East Midlands, said that the victims in this case had been subjected to "squalid living conditions and near total control" by the Markowskis. The brothers seized their victims' travel documents on arrival, as well as cards associated with new bank accounts opened by the victims with their assistance.

"Modern slavery in a global issue that often goes unseen, but prosecutors and police are determined to take all possible steps to hold those responsible to account, regardless of borders," Smith said. "In this instance, the CPS was able to build a case that left the defendants with no option but to admit their guilt."