Organised Crime, Modern Slavery and Waste Management

The waste management industry has been receiving increasing attention as a sector at high risk of modern slavery, with figures from the anti-slavery charity Hope for Justice suggesting about two thirds of forced labour victims have worked in the waste management sector.  The waste management sector is a multi-tiered industry with many complex supply chain networks. This complex network of supply chains makes it easy for individuals to be filtered into the system for the purposes of labour exploitation.  Such an accessible system has made the waste management industry very attractive to organised crime groups, with many groups operating in the sector also involved with other major criminal enterprises such as human trafficking, county lines drugs operations and arms offences.

Organised crime is often associated with grand ‘mafia-esque’ organisational structures, but these traditional organised crime groups are giving way to more dynamic fragmented groups that operate more fluidly. In May 2019 the National Crime Agency (NCA) released organised crime figures that suggested that the number of offenders involved in organised crime in the United Kingdom was approximately 181,000 , though this is considered a conservative estimate. As part of the same press release the NCA released its national strategic assessment for 2019 which discussed the changing face of organised crime and outlines the rise in modern slavery and human trafficking referrals. Public awareness of organised crime has risen recently with several high profile reports of prosecutions and police operations to tackle gangs and organised crime groups operating across county lines. However, whilst public awareness of organised crime and modern slavery is rising it does not seem that there is any widespread awareness of how these issues impact the waste management sector.

In 2018 the government published a review of serious organised waste crime, which outlined how organised crime groups would often “colonise” pre-existing legitimate waste markets. These criminal operations would often then function through other criminal enterprises, including modern slavery and human trafficking. In response to the issues of organised crime and modern slavery in the waste sector the Environment Agency committed to taking new measures to tackle these issues. Some of these responses have included increasing inter-agency collaboration to ensure that investigations and operations carry a bigger impact against organised crime, and specially training officers to spot the signs of modern slavery. Whilst public awareness of waste crime and modern slavery in the waste sector such measures by law enforcement and government bodies signal a firm awareness of serious and major criminal activity in the waste management sector, and a commitment to addressing these issues.

Growing Awareness of Labour Exploitation at Waste Recycling Facilities 

8% of MRW survey participants stated they witnessed possible cases of labour exploitation in the last year
8% of MRW survey participants stated they witnessed possible cases of labour exploitation in the last year

New statistics report that over a third of rescued modern slavery victims in the UK have, at some point over the course of their exploitation, been used for labour at waste or recycling processing plants. This work involves long strenuous hours in harsh, dirty environments, ‘picking’ and sorting materials that come into the depot. These cases highlight the recycling industry as one of the increasing target points for human traffickers, where the victims maybe moved between known industries such as car washes and factory work.

Surveys from the Materials Recycling World industry insight have claimed that 8% of those who took part stated they witnessed possible cases of labour exploitation in the last year. Reports suggest eastern European gang members are accompanying the victims posing as ‘friends’ to help interpret where there were language barriers. A case recorded by Hope for Justice recounted that the ‘friend’ would accompany the victim to the bank to set up a bank account, and manipulate the situation into gaining access to the account and take the wages from the worker. As suggested by Neil Wain, International Programme Director at Hope for Justice, such “findings suggest there may still be a limited awareness of the factors that cause and contribute to modern slavery in this sector of the economy, and that more training and understanding would be beneficial.”

The NCA has recorded 1,631 referrals of modern slavery in the first 3 months of 2018. There is growing awareness around the waste industry as a key sector for the skills and labour sets of human trafficking victims. These findings point to the need for tightening of regulation around waste and recycling supply chains, particularly those attached to local government. As a government utility, it is critical that waste collection and treatment systems do not facilitate modern slavery. The private sector waste companies need assessment around the UK’s Modern Slavery legalisation.

For further reporting on by Materials Recycling World, read here.