Fri, Aug 11, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Sports Direct and other big UK brands unwittingly use slave labor

Convictions over the exploitation of migrant workers, sent to work at the sportswear firm as well as for suppliers of major supermarkets, show how slavery is flourishing in modern Britain

By Felicity Lawrence  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Sports Direct within six months this year has been named in three separate modern slavery trials in courts in Nottinghamshire, England, all relating to Polish migrants sent to work through recruitment agencies at the corporation’s warehouse in Shirebrook.

The courts convicted members of three separate criminal groups for modern slavery, after hearing that they had sent migrants to work through agencies that supplied labor to the headquarters of the sportswear company.

Some migrants were also sent through an agency to work for a leading vegetable producer, which supplies — directly or indirectly — nearly all the UK’s major supermarkets.

Although neither the companies nor the agencies were accused of any wrongdoing, the three trials have revealed how the modern-day slave trade has taken root in the UK economy, as big-brand companies have become unwitting users of slave labor.

The cases also reveal the pre-conditions necessary for slavery to flourish in modern Britain: first, a supply of vulnerable people; second, labor outsourcing that diffuses responsibilities; and third, communities that fail to recognize the circumstances in which their neighbors are living.

The way in which recruiters targeted heavy drinkers, the homeless, people with previous convictions and the unemployed was a recurrent theme of the Nottingham trials.

The trial last month of Polish national Dariusz Parczewski, who was convicted for forced labor and fraud, underlines just how transparently modern-day slavery exists in Britain’s neighborhoods and industries.

The Parczewski family relied on slave labor and used their victims’ identities to carry out nearly £1 million (US$1.3 million) in benefit fraud.

One of their workers, Jaroslaw Kilian, described in court how he had been ensnared in the family’s net.

Parczewski, along with his wife and son, relied on spotters to trawl the streets of the picturesque northern Polish city of Toru for workers.

Kilian, who was discovered outside a pub, was offered a job in England earning £260 a week with accommodation provided — twice what he could earn in Poland.

Kilian expressed an interest, and the recruiter called his contacts: a car soon arrived to take his identity documents; within a few days, he had been given food, tobacco and a bus ticket for Nottingham.

Parczewski met Kilian at the Nottingham bus station and took him to one of two small campers the family had squeezed into the driveway of their home in Aspley. Seven or eight men lived in the campers at any one time.

Their only toilet and washing facilities were in an unheated garage they had to share with hens and pigeons. Kilian became distressed when he recalled how he had been made to live.

The workers carried out hours of domestic labor for the family, whose back garden they were forced to keep immaculately clean and whose small house was reportedly decorated in a style that suggested delusions of Versace grandeur.

Bank accounts were opened in workers’ names, but controlled by the Parczewskis. The workers’ identities were also used to carry out benefit fraud for more than five years, netting the family nearly £1 million.

Kilian was taken to a large agency and sent to work at Sports Direct, where he spent about nine months at its Shirebrook warehouse, packing shoes and clothes for dispatch.

Speaking little English, he could not communicate with other workers at the site, which was exposed in 2015 for alleged poor working conditions.

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