Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

Beatings, death threats and back-breaking work - the grim truth about modern slavery across British flower farms

MILLIONS of us will be popping to the shops to treat our mums to a bunch of flowers this Sunday.

But while they may look beautiful, there's a horrifying truth about some of the bunches sold in our supermarkets.

Martin was kept as a modern slave in England, where he was beaten and forced to sleep on a bug-infested mattress on the floor

British flower farms have become a hotbed for modern slavery - with hundreds of foreign nationals illegally trafficked into the UK every year and forced to work in hazardous conditions to pick stems for just 8p per bunch.

We've heard modern slaves are often forced to work back-breaking 15-hour days with no protection from the harmful chemicals used to cultivate the plants. But worst of all, they're even threatened with violence against themselves and their families if they escape.

Martin* was trafficked to the UK and forced to pick flowers when he was in his early 50s. He is just one of a suspected 136,000 slaves in Britain today, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index.

In September, eight people were rescued by police from an unnamed farm in Cambridgeshire where they were subjected to "cramped and poor conditions" and received "little or no money".

Here, Martin bravely shares his story as part of The Sun's Stamp Out Slavery campaign in conjunction with Co-Op, backing Lord McColl's victim support bill, which proposes to extend support given to rescued slaves from 45 days to one year.

Farms across Britain have become targets for slave gangmasters

Over an agonising ten months, Martin was forced to sleep on a bare mattress ridden with ravenous bed bugs, and his bosses hauled him from factories to fields for weeks of hard labour.

In return, they stole from him and beat him - and while his only dream was to get away from his captors, they were quick to deliver a chilling warning if he tried.

“They told me that if I reported anything to the police, I would have to move so they couldn’t find me," he tells Sun Online nervously, clearly still frightened that he will be found and fearful of speaking out when many others wouldn't dare.

"They said they would bludgeon me with baseball bats and said it had happened four times before to men ‘like me’,” Martin painfully recalls. For this reason, Martin is unable to reveal any specific details about his true identity as he fears that he would be hunted down and killed.

The suspected slaves had been living in cramped and squalid conditions on a Cambridgeshire farm

New life became living hell

Martin grew up in a small town in Poland and had studied hard throughout his childhood. He graduated from agricultural school but a lack of work pushed him into factory work.

Lonely after losing both of his parents in their early 60s, and having no family of his own, he didn’t think twice about responding to a small newspaper advert offering paid employment in England.

The job seemed to offer everything he'd been waiting for - a fresh start in a new country, regular income and somewhere to live and call home. Despite the very low pay, he was excited for a new adventure.

“They said they would provide us with a suitable home and the agent’s office was crammed with men,  so I quickly signed the contract,” Martin says.

After forking out £110 for rent, the agent also demanded Martin pay for his own work clothes and told him to pack painkillers - though he wasn't told why.

Little did he know then that he'd be forced to work through any injury not severe enough to hospitalise him, such as painful muscle sprains, cuts and bruises - so the medicine would be essential.

In autumn 2012, Martin travelled to England by mini bus - after 40 hours, the group of men arrived and were taken by car to the grotty and dirty home they would share for the next few months.

Exhausted, hungry and nervous about what lay ahead, Martin’s heart sank when he saw the home his employers had provided was nothing more than a shared room and a bare mattress on the floor ridden with bed bugs.

“None of the men spoke out, we just got on with it. We were grateful for the work,” he said.

The men also shared a bathroom and kitchen, which were equally basic and dirty.

When Martin arrived in England, he found himself living with other men in a small room ridden with bed bugs

'Sometimes I earned just £10 a week'

The men were hauled from place to place in an old mini van to pick flowers on different farms.

“We went from fields to factories. At first, we worked for weeks across several different fields. We picked cabbages and cut flowers to be transported to sell in UK supermarkets,” Martin says.

During the winter they spent hours in freezing cold factories where they would lug around heavy boxes of produce.

Still, none of the workers ever called in sick as their pay, which was often as little as £10 to £20 a week, wasn’t enough to cover their basic needs, so they would have to rely on the minimal amount of cash they had brought over.

Martin was shocked when his boss – who he says was a relative of the agent he had met in Poland – told him there would be no work for a few weeks.

“The agency didn’t tell us there would be periods where you would have no work. They let us stay in our accommodation if we paid rent but they didn’t pay us."

That's when Martin's boss offered him a bed in his own home.

"I didn't realise the danger at the time," he admits.

Human punchbag

Once under the same roof, Martin's bosses started to beat him – punching and kicking him unconscious.

"They punched me and then when I fell to the floor they kicked me several times," he recalls.

They warned him that if he tried to escape they would find him and savagely beat him to death with a baseball bat.

When the beating finally ended, he was left in unbearable pain and miraculously found an opportunity to flee to a local doctor’s surgery.

“I finally felt safe enough to speak out in the privacy of the doctor's room," he says.

Seeing his horrendous injuries, doctors immediately referred him to the UK police.

“It wasn’t until I spoke with the police that I heard the term ‘human trafficking’ used. I was frightened,” he says. “How had this happened? I had chased a dream and ended up as a slave.”

'I’m rebuilding my life, but I'll always fear they’ll find me'

Agreeing to help the police with their enquiries, Martin was granted protection and referred to the Salvation Army who gave him temporary accommodation.

He had escaped but he knew he would always have to look over his shoulder when walking down the street in case his captors tracked him down.

Charity Migrant Help stepped in to help Martin with his paperwork for a National Referral Mechanism - the government system that provides slavery victims with safe accommodation, medical treatment, psychological help, material assistance, legal and translation help. Last year, 6,993 potential victims were submitted to the NRM.

'I only got help for six weeks'

Usually decisions as to whether the applicant is a victim of human trafficking are made within five days, and then support services are  made available. But this is only for a short 45-day period before being completely withdrawn, often leaving migrants very vulnerable to being re-enslaved and left homeless.

But for those who have suffered years of torment – both physical and psychological - 45 days is just not enough to rebuild their lives. This is why The Sun Online, alongside Co-op, are campaigning for this period to be extended to a year.

Martin has now been referred to City Hearts, a charity for migrants following the NRM who, alongside Co-op, launched the Bright Future programme, which offers paid working placements to victims of modern slavery.

After a week’s placement, Martin landed a permanent part-time job with the Co-op and has now been working with them for 11 months.

“For the first time in years, I feel a new sense of hope and I’m finally able to gain some independence,” Martin says. He has his own place to live and his own bank account.

Sadly the agent in Poland and Martin’s boss, along with others like him, still haven’t been caught. Their network is widespread and many vulnerable victims are too afraid to speak out in fear of their lives.

That’s why we are here to tell their story, and to campaign for a brighter future.

Justine Currell, Director at Unseen, says: “There were 45 cases in agriculture and farming in the UK reported to the Modern Slavery Helpline in 2018.  

"This isn’t just an issue happening in faraway supply chains, it’s here in British fields.

"Workers might be exploited directly by a farmer, or more commonly by a middleman providing labourers.  

"If you work in the sector and have any concerns, or if anyone observes warning signs such as fearful or unkempt labourers sleeping on site or being transported in a group, call the Modern Slavery Helpline (08000 121 700) to report and get free confidential advice.”

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