The UK’s largest-ever modern slavery ring – which forced more than 400 people to work for as little as 50p a day – has been broken and its ringleaders convicted.
Following two trials, five men and three women, all originally from Poland, were convicted of modern slavery offences and money laundering.
The gang, led by the Brzezinski family, preyed on homeless people, ex-prisoners and alcoholics, also from Poland.
Their targets were trafficked to the UK after being offered good money, but instead were housed in squalor.
Some of them were desperate for money to pay for family members’ medical care.
Living conditions were “horrible”, one victim said. “I would say some homeless people here in the UK live better than I lived after I arrived over here,” he added.
Victims aged from 17 to over 60 were housed in at least nine addresses in the West Midlands, up to four to a room, were fed out-of-date food and had to scavenge for mattresses to sleep on.
Some of the properties did not have working toilets, heating or furniture. One man washed in a canal because he had no other access to water.
If victims complained, they would be humiliated, threatened or beaten up, while “house spies” kept an eye on them.
They were put to work on farms, at rubbish recycling centres and poultry factories.
The gang registered them for National Insurance, opened bank accounts in their names using bogus addresses, and claimed benefits without their knowledge.
Despite being here legally, the traffickers convinced the victims that was not the case, and that if they left their accommodation they would be arrested.
One worker, who was redecorating a house, was given coffee and a chicken as payment.
In contrast, their criminal masters earned £2m, wore lavish clothes and drove luxury cars, including a Bentley.
The accounts of more than 90 victims were heard by jurors, but it is believed that at least 350 more were exploited by the gang.
The operation was finally stopped after victims were uncovered by anti-slavery charity Hope for Justice, which said 51 victims eventually made contact at two drop-in centres.
At the end of the second case last month, a jury at Birmingham Crown Court convicted two men, 52-year-old Ignacy Brzezinski, from West Bromwich, and Wojciech Nowakowski, 41, from Birmingham, of modern slavery offences.
A third, Jan Sadowski, 26, from West Bromwich, admitted his part on the trial’s first day.
At a previous trial ending in February, leading conspirator Marek Chowanic, 30, along with Ignacy’s cousin, Marek Brzezinski, 50, recruitment consultant Julianna Chodakiewicz, 24, Natalia Zmuda, 29, and Justyna Parczewska, 48, the group’s matriarch, were all convicted of their roles.
During sentencing at the first trial, Judge Mary Stacey said the gang’s “degradation” of their victims was “totally unacceptable”.
She jailed the five defendants for between 11 and four-and-a-half years in March.
Ignacy Brzezinski, who has skipped bail since being convicted, Nowakowski and Sadowski will be sentenced later on Friday.
Detective Chief Inspector Nick Dale from West Midlands Police said it was the “largest conspiracy of its type convicted in the UK”.
Victims were “legally entitled to work in this country and spend their wages how they saw fit and live where they saw fit”, he added.
But the traffickers would “convince the victims that they were unlawfully in the country, that if they left the house the traffickers provided for them they would be arrested by police”.
Mr Dale continued: “Sometimes they were given a debt, so they were told that they owed the traffickers £5,000 and had to work off that debt – so there’s a lot of these methods the traffickers would use to make them feel trapped.”
The UK’s largest-ever modern slavery ring – which forced more than 400 people to work for a pittance – has been broken and its ringleaders convicted.