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Slavery Hasn't Ended, It Just Takes Different Forms - That's Why Unions Still Matter

24/01/2017 15:46
Richard Vernalls/PA Wire

It saddens me to write this, but anyone who thinks the case of the Polish brothers who forced their compatriots at Sports Direct into modern day slavery is an unusual one couldn't be more wrong.

As a union official I know incidents like this are commonplace. Several years ago I was involved in case in the West Midlands that I will remember as long as I live. A Polish gang set up a bogus employment agency and housed immigrant workers in a house in the Black Country.

They worked at a local food production company. Bank accounts were set up in their names as soon as they arrived in the UK - but their cash cards were immediately taken from them, and so too were their passports. Wages were paid straight into their bank accounts and they were escorted to and from the house they shared to the factory where they worked.

They were expected to volunteer for overtime whenever possible and if there was no overtime available they were expected to go out and steal. The people who exploited these unfortunate workers were members of a vicious criminal gang. When their home was finally raided their home, it was discovered that more than £100,000 had gone through the bank account of one of them.

Victims talked of punishment beatings. They daily fear they felt is impossible to imagine. All of the workers were recruited from the same area of Poland the gang came from - so the constant threat to those who contemplated trying to escape or run away was that retribution would come in the form of real harm being inflicted on loved ones back home.

As a union, we were able to help when the authorities were alerted to the situation. We housed the workers outside the area and paid for their accommodation, so they knew they were safe. We were instrumental in getting the bogus "employment agency" in Dudley shut down.

I learned that it is not as easy as it sounds to tackle the dreadful scourge of modern day slavery. Often these people are not regarded as victims at all but as illegal immigrants who should be sent home. As a union, we do our best to work with other agencies, including third sector organisations like the Salvation Army, to look after them and make sure they are well treated after their ordeal has ended.

But the reality is these gangs keep coming to the UK and innocent people who are trying to build a better life are ruthlessly exploited in the most brutal way. Slavery hasn't ended, it just takes different forms.

That's why unions are so important. I have seen first-hand the transformation that takes place when ordinary people come together to make a stand against poor pay and exploitation.

Unite won union recognition for workers at Sports Direct's Shirebrook warehouse at the turn of the last decade, after a long fight with management.

One of the most difficult challenges unions face after they win the right to organise is to convince employees to become workplace representatives. But when we asked workers at Shirebrook to volunteer, a queue of people came forward. It was inspirational. They had gone from frightened workers to emboldened individuals who understood the power they had to demand change. And they won. That's why I get so angry when people say unions don't matter. They do.

Gerard Coyne is a Regional Secretary of Unite West Midlands. He is standing to be General Secretary of Unite the Union

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