Seven people operating a charity collection business in the North East have been arrested in dawn raids as part of an investigation into modern slavery.
Northumbria Police suspect that the men, all from Lithuania, worked as charity bag collectors through a third party, collecting donations of clothes across Newcastle.
According to the police, the business buys in thousands of charity bags from abroad, which its workers hand out to the public.
It says the clothing from the collected bags is then sold abroad and the company take a cut of the money. The charities involved would be completely unaware that many of the employees are potentially slavery victims.
Police have rescued 12 of the organisation’s workers who it believes were being housed in shared accommodation with their wages and benefits controlled by their employers.
HMRC are also running a separate investigation to establish whether any of the proceeds from the business are going to the charities in question.
Northumbria Police said it believes the suspects in this case run a legitimate business that is used as a front for criminal activity that is being committed.
A spokesperson for Northumbria Police said: “They may be giving an agreed portion to a charity, they may be keeping it for themselves, they may have even set up a fake charity and collected bags on the behalf. We don’t know until we look at the evidence we have seized.
“The main point of these raids, and the criminal aspect of the operation, is the fact that those working as charity bag collectors are suspected to be victims of trafficking and slavery.”
A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: "The Commission will support the Northumbria Police, HMRC and the Fundraising Regulator in the investigation and engage with any charities involved.
"Charities who operate in these areas should ensure they have monitoring processes in place with third party collectors to help identify any links to criminal activity and to protect public trust in charities and charitable funds generated from charity bag/clothing collections.”
The Fundraising Regulator said in a statement: “Today’s incident in Newcastle is of course very concerning. This is a matter for Northumbria police, and we are supportive of their efforts to crack down on this illegal and unethical practice.
“We are concerned that the charities and organisations that they employ on their behalf to collect clothing to raise funds for good causes should not be harmed by the alleged illegal, criminal activities of those arrested by the police.”
Modern slavery investigation
Police launched the modern slavery investigation last year after received intelligence about a suspected Lithuanian organised crime group understood to be operating in the city.
Enquiries led officers to believe that a factory had been set up in the North Shields and men were being trafficked from Eastern Europe to work across the region.
Officers have been working closely with partners at Newcastle City Council, Gateshead Council, HMRC, the National Crime Agency and a number of charities to gather intelligence on the group and their activities.
Superintendent Steve Barron, who is leading the operation, said: “Often individuals don't realise that they are victims and the small wage they earn in this country often exceeds anything they would earn in their home country.
“They are brought into the country on the promise of work, housed in sub-standard accommodation and their benefits and finances are all controlled by their employer.
“By executing warrants such as those carried out today, we can help to provide potentially vulnerable victims with the support they need while also disrupting suspected criminal activity.
“We do not believe that any of the charities involved would know that those collecting their bags were potentially victims of modern day slavery and human trafficking.”
Northumbria Police said it would not give names of the charities involved.
Modern Slavery Act
The Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires all organisaitons, including charities, with an income of more than £36m and carrying out a buisness.
This must include a statement saying whether steps have been taken to ensure human trafficking and slavery is not taking place in supply chains. NCVO recently published guidance on complying with the act.