LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A British court banned a couple convicted of illegally supplying overseas workers from recruiting any more staff, investigators said on Friday, the first time Britain has used such a sanction as the country cracks down on labor abuses and modern slavery.
Sabina Gaina, 25, and Badar Hayat, 43, who lived in the central English city of Leicester, were handed 12-month prison terms, suspended for two years, for recruiting workers from eastern Europe without having a license to do so.
The judge handed down the sentence at Leicester Crown Court on Thursday; details were released on Friday by the Gangmasters and Labor Abuse Authority (GLAA).
Detectives said the couple was ordered to cease any recruitment activity in Britain for a period of two years in a sanction that aims to protect vulnerable workers from being lured into a life of drudgery, debt bondage and modern slavery.
Britain has set itself as a global leader in the fight against slavery, passing tough anti-trafficking laws in 2015.
The country is home to an estimated 136,000 slaves, according to Australian rights group Walk Free Foundation.
Many are immigrants lured to the country under the false promise of a better life and then forced to work at car washes, construction sites, hotels, nail bars and farms, officials say.
Investigators said Gaina and Hayat had “made a fortune” sub-letting homes to workers they had recruited online, offering - on payment of a fee - well-paid jobs in a bakery and housing.
“They targeted those with little money, who spoke little or no English, many of whom were in a desperate position in their home country,” said Ian Waterfield, head of operations at the GLAA - Britain’s anti-slavery body which investigated the case.
The couple pleaded guilty to acting as a gangmaster without a license and were served with an order banning them from engaging in any recruiting activity for two years.
Breaching the ban is a criminal offense, the GLAA said.
The case marked the first time that such an order has been used since its launch in 2016.
It aims to stop labor abuse escalating into full-scale exploitation, but activists say the measure is too narrow - hence its first deployment in two years - and want it reviewed.
“The time and effort taken to reach this point is a concern for an enforcement body that is already desperately stretched for resources,” Caroline Robinson, head of the charity Focus On Labor Exploitation (FLEX), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Detectives said Gaina and Hayat traveled to Romania and Moldova to recruit workers in 2015 and 2016 but the conditions they promised were a far cry from those delivered in reality.
Workers said that up to 13 people were forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor of a small flat in Leicester while the pair made total profits of up to 25,000 pounds ($32,000).
“They drove their tenants into debt and gave them no choice but to work their way out of it,” said Waterfield.
Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org