A WEST Yorkshire factory owner who employed large numbers of Hungarians as a “slave workforce” to supply beds to top high-street retailers has been sentenced to 27 months in prison for people trafficking.
The conviction of “pillar of the community” Mohammed Rafiq is reported to be the first of a company boss for human trafficking offences in the UK.
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.
As part of the defendant’s contract with the companies he was required to adhere to each of their policies regarding ethical trading, including how persons who worked on their premises were treated.
At Leeds Crown Court Judge Christopher Batty said that having listened to the evidence of witnesses during the trial, it was apparent “just how upset and how affected the witnesses were and the number of them who were reduced to tears”.
An investigation into the trafficking began at the Dewsbury-based firm and its subsidiary after two Hungarians, Janos Orsos and Ferenc Illes, were arrested over human trafficking allegations.
Rafiq, of Thorncliffe Road, Staincliffe, was convicted in January of a single count of conspiracy to traffic individuals within the UK.
At a previous hearing, Orsos was sentenced to five years in prison for trafficking offences, and Illes three years.
Upon the Hungarian nationals’ arrival in the UK they were promised good wages, housing and food yet once in West Yorkshire, they found themselves living in shared, cramped and squalid accommodation.
The court heard how the men would work up to 16 hours per day for between £10 and £20 per week.
Judge Batty told Rafiq: “You entered into an agreement with Orsos, Orsos is a ruthless Hungarian gangmaster who preyed upon those who were suffering in his homeland at a time when the economy was in disarray.
“For his hideous exploitation to succeed he needed businessmen to employ his workers, yours was one of those businesses. You knew that they had been trafficked into this country, you yourself intended to exploit them.
“I’m satisfied that you agreed to pay £3 per hour for labour. You accepted the cheap labour that he found you regardless of how they were being treated. I’m satisfied you did nothing to help, you did not care.”
Rafiq’s company, which he built up over 33 years having come to the country from Pakistan when he was 20, was described as “highly successful”.
The company, which manufactured beds and mattresses, had a turnover of many millions and supplied international companies including John Lewis and Next who required that workers were paid the minimum wage, had contracts, were not overworked and had holiday entitlement.
Judge Batty said: “They were not prepared to deal with businesses who mistreated their employees. You were quite happy to enter into these arrangements and happy to adhere to these ethical standards when times were good but there came a time when business was less profitable, yours was a business that was costly to run, while turnover was high the profits were.”
He told Rafiq that “people like you provide the market for people like them (Orsos)”, adding, “if you didn’t open the factory gates there would be no such market for them”.
He added: “Human trafficking is a blight in our society. You gambled a great deal when you got into this agreement with Orsos. You have lost it all, you were a pillar of the community. You are a fallen man who has lost it all, you must now lose your liberty.”
Detective Chief Inspector Warren Stevenson, of West Yorkshire Police’s Protective Services Crime section, said he hoped the case sends a strong message to those complicit in the trafficking of people into the UK.
He said: “Human trafficking has no place in our communities and we would urge anyone with concerns to please report them to the police so that they can be acted upon.
“We hope that today’s sentencing provides some closure for them as they continue to rebuild their lives both here in the UK and back in Hungary.”
Ben Cooley, CEO of Hope for Justice, said that Friday’s ruling had set an example.
“Prosecutions like this are extremely rare; most cases in the UK never come before a court because of the many barriers faced by victims overcoming such a traumatic experience. It’s a painful reality we have to change if we want to end slavery for good.”
A spokesman for Dunelm, which was historically supplied with goods by Kozee Sleep but ceased business in December 2014, said: “We are absolutely committed to ensuring that ethical standards are maintained in our supply chain and that all workers are treated fairly. All our suppliers have to sign up to an Ethical Code of Conduct and we carry out regular audits.”