Leading police officers in the case against human trafficker Mohammed Rafiq have hailed his conviction as a “landmark prosecution.”
Batley man Rafiq was found guilty of conspiracy to traffic at Leeds Crown Court on January 20.
An investigation into his company Kozee Sleep, based in Dewsbury, began after Hungarians Janos Orsos and Ferenc Illes were arrested over (and later convicted of) human trafficking.
Large numbers of their fellow countrymen were employed at Rafiq’s Kozee Sleep factory, supplied by Orsos.
The conviction of Rafiq, a company boss, in a case such as this in the UK is said to be unprecedented.
Rafiq, 60, of Thorncliffe Road, Staincliffe, was investigated by West Yorkshire Police’s specialist human trafficking unit.
Det Sgt Paul Simm said: “It’s a complete test case, the first of its kind in the country to my knowledge, whereby the end user has been prosecuted.
He added that this not only sets precedents but also gives investigators better direction in similar cases.
“It creates a spectrum from those who recruit right the way down to the final user,” he said.
“He [Rafiq] interacted with the traffickers, he sought labour from them and ultimately exploited them in the workplace.”
This was in the full knowledge that the Hungarians were being trafficked for that purpose, he added.
Det Insp Andy Leonard said Rafiq was “paying them a lot less than you would a normal worker so he could maximise his profits.”
Police and crime commissioner for West Yorkshire Mark Burns-Williamson set the 11-strong specialist human trafficking unit up a year ago.
Mr Leonard said the force had learned a lot and partnering up with other authorities such as councils and charities has led to a greater awareness about trafficking.
In 2014-15, around 2,300 alleged victims of the crime were referred to the National Referral Mechanism – 122 (five per cent) of which were within West Yorkshire.
Mr Leonard said that is one of the larger referrals in the country, but that the picture is improving because of the specialist team.
He is “resasonably confident” there will be more convictions from on going human trafficking cases in West Yorkshire over the next 12 months.
There have been 80 human trafficking related crimes reported to the police in the last year in West Yorkshire, split evenly between allegations of forced labour and sexual exploitation.
Mr Leonard said: “Across Europe the economic situation must be ripe for people to come here to work. There is a general migration from east to west.”
Some of the victims involved in the Kozee Sleep trafficking are still in the country trying to build a new life, while others sought repatriation.
Since July 2013, 35 Kozee Sleep trafficking victims were rescued.
Police build evidence from the victims only when approached by specialist charities such as Hope for Justice with the prior, full consent of those exploited.
But this is not an easy task, because those from different countries and cultures are reluctant to come forward about their experiences.
Mr Simm said: “That’s one of the harest parts of a human trafficking case. They have instilled in them a massive mistrust of authority to the extent that they are fearful.
“It does take time to break down those barriers, gain the trust of the victims and to encourage them to come forward with their accounts to ensure that their exploiters are accountable.”
The Kozee Sleep victims were moved to different workplaces by the traffickers.
“In part to avoid detection and a degree of control. The dropping and collection of these victims ensures that they know where they are at any one time,” said Mr Simm.
Mr Leonard praised the work of his colleagues for their during the investigation.
He said: “We’re delighted [about the conviction], absolutely. I’m delighted but the credit has to go to Paul and his colleague Mike Parris, who’ve spent the last few years pursuing what is a landmark prosecution and it totally justifies the setting up of the human trafficking team.”
And he warned businesses that this type of criminal activity will not be tolerated and there will be wide-ranging consequences for those who decide to do it.
“As well as being a criminal matter it’s a totally reckless business decision to embark on this employment of labour.”