Consumers in Leeds are being urged to “question the ethics and morality of cheap goods” after a bed company boss supplying firms including John Lewis and Next was jailed for employing slave labourers.
West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson spoke out after the conviction of Mohammed Rafiq, from Batley, who became the first company owner to be convicted over modern slavery offences.
The 60-year-old sourced the Hungarian nationals at his bed-making factory, Kozee Sleep, in Dewsbury, for cheap slave labour, making them work up to 16 hours a day for as little as £10 per week.
Rafiq, who was described as having “a spectacular fall from grace” within his religious community, was aware of the men’s circumstances yet went along with their exploitation as a slave workforce.
His firm Kozee Sleep and its subsidiary Layzee Sleep, in Batley, were to supply household names including Next Plc, the John Lewis Partnership and Dunelm Mill who despite carrying out regular ethical audits failed to spot what was going on.
Mr Burns-Williamson has called for members of the public to play their part in tackling the trade in human misery in the region, which is seen as a hotspot for such offences.
He said: “Members of the public, whether noticing suspicious activity in your neighbourhood and the comings and goings from nearby properties, or if you are at work sat next to someone in the canteen who hasn’t got any lunch, or has just a slice of bread, or who doesn’t have any money for lunch...all are potential tell tale signs.
“We also need to question more the ethics and morality of cheap consumer goods which can be the result of using ‘slave’ labour that can drive the demand to exploit people by human traffickers.”
Mr Burns-Williamson said the Kozee Sleep case showed that “modern day slavery is happening and right in the heart of civilised society”.
He said he had made human trafficking a key focus for his force since 2014, when a number of Czech nationals were rescued in a large police operation in Leeds.
Since then a dedicated West Yorkshire Police human trafficking unit has been set up, along with a local anti-trafficking and modern slavery network and now a national network.
The national anti-slavery network, launched last month, means local and national authorities around the country agree to share good work with each other and work together to identify offenders. Members of the network are meeting on 15 March to formally agree the terms of reference.
Mr Burns-Williamson said: “The WYP unit are doing a great job and currently have 13 live investigations across West Yorkshire which include forced labour, sexual exploitation and exploitation through the commission of crime.
“So, hopefully there will be more convictions to follow and combined with the 3,000-plus staff trained in spotting the signs of human trafficking we are stepping up our fight against this horrendous practice.”
The Home Office revealed last week that police have uncovered 33 potential cases of modern slavery in Yorkshire in the past six months.
The alleged victims were all referred to the National Crime Agency by West Yorkshire Police and assessed through a new system being piloted in the region.