Workers who are potentially being exploited in Cheshire were the focus of a week-long operation between police and partners.
Officers from Cheshire Police joined forces with colleagues from agencies including the National Crime Agency, HM Revenue and Customs, Immigration and the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority to identify potential victims and gather vital intelligence about this type of crime.
Operational activity, which ran from Monday 30th May to Friday 3rd June, involved visits to business premises across the county – in particular hand car washes, where intelligence suggests there is a potential risk of individuals employed at these premises being exploited.
During the week two potential victims were identified and taken to a place of safety.
Detective Chief Inspector Gwyn Dodd said: "Modern day slavery is a challenging issue for police and partners to deal with as it is very much a hidden crime – and the true extent of the problem is not known. The operation in Cheshire focused on labour exploitation and has helped us to raise awareness of the issue, build up a bigger picture of what is happening in Cheshire and understand better the true extent of the issue. This is only the start and we hope to run similar operations in the future.
"Modern day slavery stems from organised crime and targets some of the most vulnerable people in our society. People are being tricked by organised crime groups into coming to the UK with a promise of a good job and a better life.
"Instead, they are exploited and forced to live in terrible conditions and work for very little reward. Often they have little opportunity to move freely, they are completely controlled by their abusers and therefore it is very difficult for them to get help and break free of the situation.
"This is an issue that is happening here and now and in Cheshire. It is important to remember that the majority of people running these businesses are doing so legitimately. However, intelligence suggests there are some who are using this as an opportunity to commit this type of crime."
The activity in Cheshire coincided with a European week of action - called Operation Hornsman - focusing on modern day slavery.
A total of 45 hand car washes were visited throughout the county. Officials attended each premises and carried out a number of checks to ensure they are adhering to all aspects of employment, environmental and health and safety laws.
DCI Dodd added: "This operation reinforces the fact that labour exploitation can happen anywhere - even in the most unexpected of places. One of the biggest challenges we face is that many victims do not realise they are victims. This is why it is so important to recognise the signs and behaviours associated with this type of crime, to look out for potential victims and to report any concerns you may have – no matter how insignificant they may seem.
"It is also important that anyone who is a victim - or is at risk of becoming a future victim - is identified and offered the necessary support and safeguarding. There is no place in Cheshire for this type of activity. We are determined to make sure people can live and work in Cheshire safely.
"This type of crime is not something that we can deal with in isolation and it is important that we continue to work together with our partners to disrupt the networks behind this criminal behaviour and ensure that anyone suspected of being involved is dealt with.
"By joining forces on a national and international level we are helping to get the message across loud and clear that those who operate in this way and believe they are above the law should think again – it is only a matter of time before we catch up with you."
Cheshire Police & Crime Commissioner David Keane said: "Forced labour is happening across the country and this week of action is about understanding it’s closer than we think. It’s everyone’s responsibly to look out for potential victims, and as residents we need to be aware of the signs that could mean modern slavery is happening in our community. Any suspicions should be reported to police.
"People are being tricked into coming to the UK by organised crime groups with a promise of a good job and a better life. It’s difficult for them ask for help because they are completely controlled by their abusers. If we all keep our eyes and ears open and tell police of our suspicions, we can help victims and their families escape from the terrible conditions they could be trapped in."
Paul Broadbent, Chief Executive of the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority, said: "The GLA welcomes the opportunity to work in areas which are currently outside its remit but, obviously with the changes planned for 1 October, we will be paying close interest to car washes and other types of work where people can be abused for their labour."
Anyone who has any concerns or any information about this type of crime is urged to speak to a local officer or call Cheshire Police on 101. If you do not feel comfortable contacting police directly then information can be passed on anonymously, via Crimestoppers, on 0800 555 111.