Farm workers among victims freed in UK’s biggest modern slavery investigation

A Polish slavery gang who trafficked up to 400 people to the West Midlands, forcing them to work for a pittance and live in squalid conditions, have been jailed for a total of more than 55 years following a “meticulous” West Midlands Police investigation.

In what a judge described as “the largest conspiracy of its type ever known” the group of five men and three women lured vulnerable people from their homeland – including the homeless, ex-prisoners and alcoholics – with the promise of employment, money and accommodation.

But in reality, victims were made to work long hours on farms, rubbish recycling centres and turkey gutting factories and given as little as £20 per week by the traffickers who pocketed the bulk of their salaries.

They were housed in vermin-infested properties dotted across West Bromwich, Sandwell, Smethwick and Walsall – often crammed four to a room – fed out-of-date food and forced to scavenge for dumped mattresses to sleep on.

At some properties, there were no working toilets, heating, furniture or hot water and some victims told how they were forced to wash in canal water.

Bank accounts were opened in victims’ names, using bogus addresses, but were controlled by the gang-masters who were handing over anything from £100 to just £20 per week to their illegal workforce.

It meant in some cases the ‘slaves’ – ranging in age from 17 to a man in his 60s – were receiving just 50p an hour.

The cruel group also topped up their criminal takings by claiming benefits in the victims’ names without their knowledge.

It’s estimated the abusers made in excess of £2 million between June 2012 and October 2017 on the back of their victims’ suffering and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, buying designer clothes and driving around in a Bentley and other high-end cars.

Warsaw-born Marek Chowaniec (30) from Mount Street in Walsall, played a lead role in the plot and was described in court as a “high-level fixer” and the respectable face of the gang who cut a convincing figure in banks and employment agencies.

Bentley-driving Ignacy Brzezinski, aged 52 from Beechwood Road, West Bromwich, but originally from Chelmno-Pomorskie in Poland, was another prominent member of the crime group.

He seized control of victims’ bank accounts, plundering their wages, and when police raided his home they found a stash of documents in victims’ names, their bank cards and a significant quantity of cash.

Marek Brzezinski, (50) from Lindley Avenue, Tipton, made regular trips to north-east Poland to recruit workers and even put some to work decorating his own home.

Justyna Parczewska, from Beechwood Road, West Bromwich but originally from Wloclawek, played a matriarchal role, welcoming new arrivals and making them cups of tea and food at her home but knowing full well what horrors lay ahead for the men.

When one man died at an address in Queen’s Head Road, Birmingham, the 48-year-old insisted his ID and personal belongings be removed from his pockets before paramedics arrived so as not to jeopardise their cruel exploitation.

The gang relied on ‘insider’ Julianna Chodakowicz, living in Evesham but from the Polish city of Grudziadz, who secured a job with a Worcester employment agency and signed-up dozens of the victims for work.

She was praised by “gullible” bosses for her stand-out recruitment performance – believing workers had been attracted through contacts and clever marketing – but in reality, she knew the men had been trafficked.

Birmingham Crown Court heard how the 24-year-old advised the gang-masters on how to train victims on their behaviour and what to say at work in order to avoid suspicion – and often ridiculed them for their smell and dishevelled appearance.

Wojciech Nowakowski (41) and Jan Sadowski (26) were trusted workers tasked with meeting new arrivals in the UK and chaperoning them to open bank accounts, claim benefits and register with employment agencies.

Natalia Zmuda (29) from Canute Close in Walsall, originally from Debca in Poland, played a lesser part but still escorted victims to jobcentre appointments for national insurance numbers, ferried them to work, controlled banks accounts and stole wages.

How the slavery gang were caught

West Midlands Police launched an investigation, supported by the National Crime Agency (NCA), in February 2015 when two victims bravely broke free from their captors and disclosed offences to slavery charity Hope for Justice.

They led officers to properties where slaves were housed, named some suspects and gave descriptions of other tormentors, including ‘enforcer’ Wojciech Nowakowski – who kept victims in line and dished out beatings to dissenters – who was identified by his missing toes.

Officers seized CCTV at banks showing Justyna Parczewska taking victims to open accounts and withdrawing cash.

And when they executed a warrant at her home in Beechwood Road they found £13,000 in cash, 40-plus bank cards with PIN numbers written on the back, a stash of Polish ID cards and utility bills for various addresses and bank statements in victims’ names.

Officers checked out another address in Broadway North where they found a group of Polish nationals living in awful conditions. Marek Chowaniec was spotted in a car outside the house and arrested; documents and bank cards in various names were found in the vehicle.

Many victims pointed police to a work agency in Evesham – previously called e-Response – where Chodakiewicz processed work applications. Police recovered text exchanges between her and partner Marek Chowaniec discussing work opportunities for their ‘slaves’ and how much they’d be paid.

The West Midlands Police investigation team analysed 650,000 lines of telephone data, 250 bank accounts, more than 3,000 exhibits – including bank statements and benefits claims – and 1,500 witness statements in addition to accounts taken from survivors.

Sentencing

At Birmingham Crown Court last week Ignacy Brzezinski and Nowakowski from James Turner Street, Winson Green – but originally from Bydgoszcz in Poland – were found guilty of conspiracy to traffic people, requiring them to perform forced labour and acquiring criminal property.

Jan Sadowski, from Dartmouth Street in West Bromwich, admitted the same charges.

And today (Fri 5 July) Nowakowski was jailed for six-and-a-half years while Sadowski was handed a three-year prison term.

Ignacy Brzezinski skipped court bail before the guilty verdicts were returned and was sentenced in his absence to 11 years. The 52-year-old had initially been remanded in prison but later released by the court on bail, on an electronic tag, throughout the duration of his trial. Efforts are on-going to trace Brzezinski.

The other five members of the gang were convicted on the same counts on February 22 but reporting restrictions prevented them being named until now.

Chowaniec and Marek Brzezinski were jailed for 11 and nine years, respectively, Parczewska given a five-and-a-half year sentence, Chodakowicz received five years, while Zmuda was sent to prison for four-and-a-half years.

They were all also made the subject of Slavery & Trafficking Prevention Orders – banning them from arranging travel or employment for others – which run for nine years from their release.

Senior Investigating Officer, Detective Chief Inspector Nick Dale, said a total of 92 victims were identified – including three women – of which 66 provided evidence to the court.

But he suspects the gang may have exploited a further 200 people.

He added: “This was trafficking and exploitation on a massive scale; this gang treated these people, their fellow countrymen, as commodities purely for their own greed.

“What they did was abhorrent: they subjected victims to a demi-life of misery and poverty. They forced them into work and, if they objected, they were beaten or threatened with violence and told family members back home would be attacked.

“Some were told they would be taken to the woods to dig their own graves. One man who had an accident at work was forced back to the factory and denied hospital treatment, leaving him with long-term damage to his arm.

The ringleaders were clever and manipulative – capable of considerable charm when it suited them when talking to bank staff and employment officials – and ran a sophisticated operation across more than 30 properties.

“They targeted vulnerable Polish nationals…often people in desperate need of money and susceptible to being tricked into coming to the UK. They just wanted to work hard and earn money to improve their lives. Most had never been abroad; they arrived mainly by coach but some were driven to the UK and a few flown over.

“Most felt powerless to escape, with no knowledge of the area, little or no English language skills, and no-one to turn to for help. Their lives were reduced to misery and they all have the physical and psychological scars of their exploitation.

“Only three victims had the self-confidence and ability to escape on their first night in the UK when they realised they’d been fed a pack of lies – sneaking out in the dead of night.

“This has been a landmark investigation in UK policing and one that’s led to a callous group of traffickers being put behind bars for many years, freed victims from a life of misery and undoubtedly prevented other people from facing the same fate.”

During the investigation, West Midlands Police secured 10 interim Slavery & Trafficking Risk Orders (STROs) against the group to restrict their activities and protect potential victims.

However, enquiries showed Nowakowski and Ignacy Brzezinski breached the conditions and were jailed for 42 and 28 months respectively; they were the first people in the UK to be jailed using STRO legislation.

Enquires are ongoing to trace other suspects who are believed to have played a part in the trafficking conspiracy.

If you suspect someone is being exploited or forced into labour, you can call West Midlands Police on ‘101’; the anti-slavery charity Hope for Justice on: 0300-008-8000; or the Salvation Army’s 24-hour confidential referral helpline on: 0300-303-8151.