Sports Direct has been named in three separate modern slavery trials in Nottinghamshire courts within six months this year, all relating to Polish migrants sent to work through recruitment agencies at the corporation’s warehouse in Shirebrook.
The courts convicted members of three separate criminal groups for modern slavery, after hearing that they had sent migrants to work through agencies that supplied labour to the headquarters of the sportswear company. Some migrants were also sent through an agency to work for a leading vegetable producer, which supplies – directly or indirectly – nearly all the UK’s major supermarkets.
Although neither the companies nor the agencies were accused of any wrongdoing, the three trials have revealed how the modern-day slave trade has taken root in the UK economy, as big-brand companies have become unwitting users of slave labour. The cases also reveal the pre-conditions necessary for slavery to flourish in modern Britain: first, a supply of vulnerable people; second, labour outsourcing that diffuses responsibilities; and third, communities that fail to recognise the circumstances in which their neighbours are living.
The way in which recruiters targeted the homeless, heavy drinkers, people with previous convictions and the unemployed was a recurrent theme of the Nottingham trials.
The trial last month of Polish national Dariusz Parczewski, who was convicted for forced labour and fraud, underlines just how transparently modern-day slavery exists in Britain’s neighbourhoods and industries. The Parczewski family relied on slave labour and used their victims’ identities to carry out nearly £1m in benefit fraud. One of their workers, Jaroslaw Kilian, described in court how he had been ensnared in the family’s net.
Parczewski, along with his wife and son, relied on spotters to trawl the streets of the picturesque northern Polish city of Toruń for workers. Kilian, who was discovered outside a pub, was offered a job in England earning £260 a week with accommodation provided – twice what he could earn in Poland. Kilian expressed an interest and the recruiter called his contacts: a car soon arrived to take his identity documents; within a few days, he had been given food, tobacco, and a coach ticket for Nottingham.
Parczewski met Kilian at Nottingham bus station and took him to one of two small caravans the family had squeezed into the drive of their home in Tiverton Close, Aspley. Seven or eight men lived in the caravans at any one time. Their only toilet and washing facilities were in an unheated garage they had to share with hens and pigeons.
Kilian became distressed when he recalled how he had been made to live. The workers carried out hours of domestic labour for the family, whose back garden they were forced to keep immaculately clean and whose small house was reportedly decorated in a style that suggested delusions of Versace grandeur. Bank accounts were opened in workers’ names but controlled by the Parczewskis. The workers’ identities were also used to carry out benefit fraud for more than five years, netting the family nearly £1m.
Kilian was taken to a large agency and sent to work at Sports Direct, where he spent about nine months at its Shirebrook warehouse packing shoes and clothes for dispatch. Speaking little English, he could not communicate with other workers at the site, which was exposed in 2015 for alleged poor working conditions. Leaving his cramped bunk early in the morning and arriving late at night, he survived on dried soup rehydrated with boiled water. Every Friday the Parczewskis would take him to the bank and force him to hand over half his weekly wages. Asked why he had not left the abusive conditions, Kilian said he had witnessed violence against another man who had dared to challenge the family, and he feared he would not be able to get another job.
Although high fences mostly hid the men from sight, people in the surrounding houses could still hear them. “You couldn’t not be aware of them,” said Heather Mawer, a neighbour. “The [home] owner was treating them like crap. The garden was spotless and he had lots of flash cars, but you’d see them scavenging in the street. I’d say hello but you couldn’t talk to them – they didn’t speak English.” Mawer recalls reporting the situation to the authorities, although she wasn’t sure if she had spoken to the police or immigration officials. “We never heard anything back.”
A neighbour on the other side of the street, Ana McColvin Dodsworth, said that with hindsight a few puzzling details now made sense, such as the path “full of human excrement” next to the Parczewskis’ house.
A few weeks before Dariusz Parczewski’s trial – which also found his son guilty of fraud and his wife of forced labour and fraud – another Polish man, Sajmon Brzezinski, had pleaded guilty to trafficking and forced labour offences. Two of his victims were identified. They had also worked through an agency for Sports Direct at Shirebrook between 2011 and 2013, before being moved on to agency shifts for a leading vegetable supplier to the big retailers. Both were highly vulnerable: one of the men had learning difficulties and had been raised in care homes, the other had lost his parents and appeared to have limited understanding.
In Nottinghamshire’s third modern slavery case naming Sports Direct, Polish brothers Erwin and Krystian Markowski were convicted of trafficking men from Poland, some of whom they put to work through another agency supplying the Shirebrook site. Eighteen victims were identified. The modus operandi was like that of the Parczewskis: spotters in Toruń trawled the streets and bars for people who looked vulnerable, making false promises of work. Travel was arranged for the men and on arrival in Nottingham, victims were taken to the agency to sign on. The Markowskis kept their identity documents, controlled their bank accounts and took most of their wages. They had to sleep on urine-soaked mattresses on the floor, and the men were kept under control by an enforcer who watched the house and imposed a 10pm curfew. As in the other two cases, victims described witnessing violence against others, and were afraid to challenge their traffickers.
The union Unite, which has been campaigning for years against working conditions at Sports Direct’s Shirebrook site, said subcontracted employment structures were contributing to the phenomenon of modern slavery. “Big workplaces, which rely on intermediaries and agencies to provide workers, are more open to worker abuse and exploitation,” said regional officer Luke Primarolo.
A spokesperson for Sports Direct said modern slavery was “often deeply hidden” and hard to detect. “We have policies in place that aim to prevent these types of behaviours, which, according to government research, may affect over 10,000 people in the UK. The conditions in the warehouse were described in open court as being of a proper nature during the case of the Markowski brothers. We are proactive in reporting anything suspicious to police in order to send a strong message that we will not tolerate these abuses.”
Case study: ‘I thought my business was squeaky clean’
Tomasz Filinski, a 44-year-old man with learning difficulties, was trafficked from Poland to the UK by the Brzezinski family in 2006 or 2007. He never knew his parents, and had been brought up in children’s homes until a tutor took him in. He started cleaning for the Brzezinskis as a young teen in return for pocket money. When his tutor died, leaving him homeless at 17, the Brzezinskis offered him lodging in return for chores. When they resettled in the UK, he was put to work by their son Sajmon Brzezinski, who registered him with an agency supplying workers to Sports Direct.
Filinski began working there from 3pm until midnight, often earning more than £300 a week, but Brzezinski controlled his bank account and took all Filinski’s wages and the working tax credits the family had applied for. Filinski was given just £20 a week spending money and bought his clothes for £2 from the Sports Direct rejects shop.
After nearly two years at Sports Direct, he was transferred to another agency and sent to work at Hammond Produce, a leading grower and packer of vegetables, which supplies almost all the major UK supermarkets. Filinski worked 12-hour shifts there starting at 7am, and walked an hour each way to and from work, which often left him too exhausted to eat once he’d returned home. His reprieve came when Hammond’s staff organised a Christmas get-together in a local pub, where a fellow victim – also an orphan, who struggled to read and had been left severely anxious by an operation to remove a brain tumour – confessed to their plight.
The discovery of slavery within his own operations came as a deep shock to Jon Hammond, owner of the family business. He said he had thought his business was “squeaky clean”, regularly turning away “Romanians who turn up in the yard in big Mercedes offering to supply four or five cheap workers”. Like Sports Direct, he had believed he had robust procedures in place to prevent such exploitation. He used a small local recruitment agency he knew well to supply line staff. Looking back, however, there had been signs: people’s lunches sometimes went missing, which he now realises might have been an indication that the men were hungry; they looked scruffy, and they always seemed to need to do overtime.
“It was absolutely gutting to find these people being exploited under your nose without your noticing. It is abhorrent,” Hammond said. The company immediately phoned the authorities, and the site is now full of posters in different languages advising staff on how to recognise and report labour abuse.