GALLERY and VIDEO: Thousands of migrant workers forced to live in sub-standard, overcrowded housing
- Credit: Archant
UP to 7,000 foreign workers could be living in sub-standard housing in Wisbech and neighbouring villages with many the victims of unscrupulous landlords.
Operation Pheasant is the multi-agency task force set up with Government funding to tackle the growing issue of homes in multiple occupation.
Fenland police inspector Robin Sissons said: “We have got nothing against houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) which are well run but if you get 20 people packed in somewhere then it’s another matter.”
One of the worst cases uncovered by Operation Pheasant this year was of a garage adjoining a house in Colvile Road, Wisbech.
When they inspected it they found six people sleeping on the garage floor in squalor. There was a trench in the middle of the floor for them to use as a toilet.
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On Tuesday I accompanied Insp Sissons, and other task force officials, as they re-inspected this and other houses.
Since their last inspection the garage had been cleared up but inside the house there were numerous safety hazards.
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The boiler was not maintained, there were no sleeping alarms and the kettle was propped up on a jam jar. Two pronged plugs had been forced into three pronged English sockets.
The migrants claimed there were five people living there but there were 11 beds in the house.
Insp Sissons said: “Tenants are often briefed about what to say to us. They are told to say less people live here than actually do.”
The scale of the task facing Operation Pheasant is massive and escalating.
“We are guessing at the numbers as we don’t really know,” said Insp Sissons. “We estimate between 700 and 1,000 properties are used in this way.
“The average house has about 10 people in them so we are talking 7,000 potential victims in overcrowded homes in Fenland.”
Operation Pheasant visits are emphatically not hostile to the tenants but to those who exploit them and force them into paying hundreds of pounds a month to live in unsafe conditions.
Insp Sissons said: “The idea is to speak to them and explain that the conditions they are living in are not reasonable. We are trying to make them aware they might be getting taken advantage of.”
One home we visited in Claremont Road, Wisbech, had nine people living in a three-bedroom house. Mould there on a previous visit had been dealt with but it still rated as overcrowded by normal standards.
Before we visited an HMO in Friday Bridge we inspected a disused home in Norwich Road, Wisbech, where migrants had been squatting. The building was in a horrific state with litter, empty cider bottles and excrement everywhere.
Insp Sissons said: “We visited here on Saturday and discovered a squatter sleeping in the attic. He was a migrant who had lost his job and was kicked out of his HMO.”
And so to Friday Bridge where a car parked outside without a valid MOT was an immediate concern.
Insp Sissons said: “Foreign cars are often not registered at British ports, which means they run on the roads for three or four years without road tax or insurance.”
Neighbours spoke of vans turning up with 20 migrants inside.
While we were at the house the landlord arrived and explained he had allowed the house to be sub-let but was not aware of the circumstances surrounding it.
He issued a one week leaving notice to the migrants inside, an outcome Fenland District Council enforcement officer Bill Tilley felt was “a really good result for Operation Pheasant”.
Insp Sissons believes migrants are caught in a cycle of entrapment from the moment they decide to leave their homeland.
He said: “They are charged £800 to get from Lithuania, which is a ridiculous amount, and once they are here they are exploited by sub-letters.
“When people arrive they usually wait at the Asda car park or by the BP garage in town where a van picks them up and they are taken to an HMO.
“Here the first message they get is there is no work for them at the moment.
“They have to keep paying for rent and have no fixed income so they spend their live savings.
“They get offered a loan by the sub-letter and once they accept the balance of power has shifted and they are at their mercy.
“They will get charged £10 a day to be taken to work and some more if they want to go to the supermarket.
“They will be expected to do 14-hour shifts and get paid £30 for them.”
Insp Sissons believes there is a culture of fear and intimidation used to keep the oppressed workers from speaking out.
He said: “People are locked into houses and those who may complain suffer the threat of intimidation.
“They are told their family members back in their home countries could get paid a visit.
“There may be 20 jobs to fill but the gangmasters will bring 80 people over to fill them and get them to work one or two days a week, even though they promised these people jobs beforehand.
“They want the extra people because they can charge them all for rent.”
Mr Tilley added: “It is a liberty. The conditions they have to endure is plain wrong.”
David Kennedy, group co-ordinator at Act Peterborough, part of ‘Stop the traffic’, an anti human trafficking charity, also took part in the visits.
He said: “There is a cycle of entrapment. They have no rent book so they can’t get a bank account. They have no protection.
“They are basically cash cows for the gangmasters.”