Police have arrested six people after a number of dawn raids as part of an investigation into modern day slavery in Newcastle – with potential victims believed to have been collecting charity bags.
An investigation was launched last year after Northumbria Police received intelligence about a suspected Lithuanian organised crime group understood to be operating in the city.
Enquiries led officers to believe that a factory had been set up in the North Shields and men were being trafficked from Eastern Europe to work across the region.
It is suspected that the men worked as charity bag collectors through a third party and that they would travel across Newcastle to collect donations of clothes.
They would then hand the clothing back to the factory where they are then sold overseas with a cut of the proceeds then expected to go to the charity in question.
Police believe those carrying out the work would be housed in shared accommodation and their wages and benefits would be controlled by their employers.
Officers have been working closely with partners at Newcastle City Council, Gateshead Council, HMRC, the National Crime Agency and a number of charities to gather intelligence on the group and their activities.
And this morning, six people have been arrested after a number of warrants were executed in the west end of Newcastle.
Superintendent Steve Barron, who is leading the operation, said that twelve potential victims have also been safeguarded as a result of the police activity.
He added that the operation is also part of the next stage of Sanctuary which looks to safeguard all manner of vulnerable people across the Northumbria Police area.
He said: "Our priority, through the work we do in the name of Sanctuary, is to safeguard vulnerable people in our region and victims of modern day slavery, trafficking and associated offences are among some of the most vulnerable we will come across.
"Often individuals don't realise that they are victims and the small wage they earn in this country often exceeds anything they would earn in their home country.
"They are brought into the country on the promise of work, housed in sub-standard accommodation and their benefits and finances are all controlled by their employer.”
He added: "By executing warrants such as those carried out today, we can help to provide potentially vulnerable victims with the support they need while also disrupting suspected criminal activity.
“We do not believe that any of the charities involved would know that those collecting their bags were potentially victims of modern day slavery and human trafficking.”
Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC said: “I am pleased to see great moves forward in Northumbria’s response and understanding of modern day slavery through targeted operations like this and 2017’s Op Kestrel, which saw significant success.
"Through this work, we are to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, supporting them through such facilities as Newcastle’s Victim Reception Centre.
"However, there is still a great deal of work to be done, particularly in raising awareness.
"It’s important people realise that these offences can happen on our doorstep, right here in the North East, and we need to ensure people caught up in these terrible situations have access to the help and safety they need.”
Northumbria Police believe the suspects in this case run a legitimate business that is then used as a front for the criminal activity that is being committed.
The business buy in thousands of the charity bags from aboard before distributing them to their workers who will hand them out to the public.
The clothing from the collected bags is then sold abroad and the company take a cut of the money. The charities involved would be completely unaware that many of the employees are potentially slavery victims.
HMRC are also running a separate investigation to establish whether any of the proceeds from the business are going to the charities in question.
Superintendent Barron added: "Modern day slavery, trafficking and associated offences are a real challenge in the UK today but local forces like Northumbria will continue to work with national bodies to disrupt this type of criminality and safeguard those vulnerable individuals at the heart of it.”
John Morris, British Red Cross director of independent living and emergency response in the North of England, said:
“The Red Cross has been asked by Northumbria Police to provide practical and emotional support to anyone evacuated as a result of this operation, in a place of safety.
“Our trained staff and volunteers will be on hand to provide emotional support, as well as practical necessities such as clothing, refreshments and first aid.
“The Red Cross works alongside emergency services across the UK to help those in crisis.”
Members of the public are asked to call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700 when they are uncomfortable or believe a person may be at risk.