Sadly, there is a growing number of people in the UK in hardship. With more than 1.3 million people now unemployed, the UK labour market has never been tougher. The Bank of England has forecast that the economy will have shrunk by 9.5% by the end of 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
And the global downturn has created a vulnerable migrant labour force.
These two significant problems have created opportunities for criminals at the fringes of the HVAC industry. They are targeting people who have lost their jobs and are desperate to provide for their families and some firms are prepared to turn a blind eye to cut costs.
Bogus training course operators are fleecing people who want to join the industry and human traffickers are providing sub-contractors with illegal labour to cut costs.
So, what’s actually happening and what can be done to tackle the criminals?
The CIPHE has been monitoring both issues and is now urging members to take action to stop criminals profiting from misery.
It’s not the first time job seekers have been targeted with the offer of very short courses that cost between £4,500 and £8,000. But furlough, recession and the chancellor urging people to retrain has brought the problem back.
CIPHE chief executive officer Kevin Wellman says: “We have been voicing our concerns for many years now, probably for three decades or more. Sadly not enough has been done to tackle rogue trainers. I had a member of the public contact me recently regarding £7,000 they had spent on a course and I had to advise them that it could not possibly have equipped them with the knowledge required for the job. It’s a heartbreaking situation.”
The training industry hasn’t helped with both time and money being cut from plumbing courses.
Wellman says: “When compared with many other courses available at a college/training centre, plumbing is an expensive course to run; especially when multiple fuel options have to be offered. And that’s part of the problem.
“We all support the idea of people joining the industry on approved schemes. But a lot of the colleges aren’t running the schemes because they are three-and-a-half years long. We’ve already seen that time frame fall from five years, then four,” he says.
He argues that training has to be comprehensive to prepare people for working in a complex role: “We’ve got innovations like solar energy, PV and heat pumps as well as learning the principles plus the practical skills. Two years is a nonsense. I do fear some parts of the education system are collapsing.”
The government has promised to look at the future of the funding, and skills learning will be in the Education White Paper due by the end of the year.
Wellman says it’s not enough: “There are already inadequately regulated courses that are not up to standards and thousands of people who are losing their jobs now. Our other fear is what happens to the people who don’t qualify for the government’s scheme? All this encourages dishonest crooks to take advantage of vulnerable people whose redundancy money is their only hope.”
It’s not just a problem in England; the qualifications system is different in Northern Ireland and Scotland. But the unaware don’t know online-advertised courses claiming to be UK-wide actually aren’t.
According to the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers’ Federation (SNIPEF) website, “The only industry approved training programme for plumbing apprenticeships in Scotland is the SNIJIB Modern Apprenticeship in Plumbing and Heating programme. This programme is managed by SNIPEF Training Services Ltd, the plumbing industry’s training provider.
“The terms and conditions of the programme aim to regulate the entry, conditions of service, training and education of apprentices in the plumbing industry and also to ensure that apprentices are trained to the standards set by the SNIJIB and the National Occupational Standards (NOS).”
How can you help someone who’s fallen foul of these fake training schemes?
Citizen’s Advice says: “If you think a business has broken the law or acted unfairly, you can report them to Trading Standards. Trading Standards uses the information you give to investigate unfair trading and illegal business activity, like rogue traders and scams.”
The other part of the problem is that police forces across the country are battling to meet the surge in online fraud targeting bank accounts. HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, the police watchdog, revealed thousands of cases are going unsolved.
Bogus training requires complex investigations. Trading Standards and the police will struggle to get victims’ money back.
Citizens Advice says: “They can take businesses to court or stop them operating, but they won’t help you fix your problem – for example, they can’t help you get a refund.”
If this is one kind of hidden crime, modern slavery is another that also affects the industry.
Despite major companies having to report on human trafficking and signs of slavery since 2017, there is mounting evidence the problem is growing.
As part of one of the biggest raids ever staged by the Metropolitan Police at a site in Orpington, Kent in September, two slavery victims were found.
But a Met spokesman tells P&H Engineering: “This isn’t just a London issue. Sadly, this is nationwide.”
Home Office data shows that in August 2020, there were over 2,000 active law enforcement investigations, including in plumbing and construction, compared with 188 in November 2016.
Based on past investigations, experts say the majority of modern slavery crimes involve sub-contractors and the victims are usually young men from Romania. They live in houses of multiple occupancy or are forced to live in factory buildings.
The gangs involved are also involved in money laundering, guns and other serious crimes.
In June, Bedfordshire Police made a series of arrests after discovering 16 modern slavery victims in a farm building. The force says it found nearly 400 victims last year, making it the fifth-highest area in the country.
Bedfordshire Police Detective Chief Inspector Louisa Glynn says: “Sadly, we know that modern slavery and exploitation is going on all around us.
“We are doing all we can to protect victims and dismantle the organised crime groups behind this exploitation.”
Experts are clear that it is going on – and why.
The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton says: “The sectors at highest risk are thought to be those that employ large numbers of low or semi-skilled workers, particularly those relying on a substantial migrant workforce such as agriculture, construction or hospitality.”
“I am concerned that using visas to restrict legal routes into the UK for migrant workers in low paid and low-skilled roles could risk a rise in irregular recruitment routes, fraud and deception.”
The Home Office tells P&H Engineering that more than 2,000 police operations are currently underway. According to official data, more than 200 construction industry cases were reported during lockdown.
But police forces are under pressure to focus on cannabis factories, the sex industry, County Lines drug dealing, agriculture and garment factories. The casual nature of much of the industry makes it difficult to track. And there is a mistaken perception in society that ‘strong’ men can’t be imprisoned.
Driving the crime is a demand for cheap building work, not just among domestic customers.
Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, the police’s national lead against modern slavery and human trafficking, says that has to end: “To eradicate slavery, people across the UK should begin difficult conversations within their communities about the demand for cheap goods and services which fuels slavery here and across the world.”
Play your part
The CIPHE has long campaigned against unskilled labour; and now the government wants you to help tackle organised crime.
The Home Office tells P&H Engineering that it will investigate any intelligence it receives from members on gangs operating in the industry.
“If you have any information, share it with us,” a spokesman says. “The government is fully committed to tackling modern slavery, including labour exploitation and protecting workers’ rights.
“We continue to work with the police, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, CPS, businesses, including the construction industry, and others to prevent this abhorrent crime, bring perpetrators to justice and restore fundamental human rights to its victims.”
So, what can be done to crack down on crime?
Wellman says: “If we see it, report it. There’s enough of us out there every day. But that’s short term. We’re telling the government they should be taking the opportunity to apply the standards for training and go for mandatory registration.”
A survey for the Water Regulatory Advisory Service (WRAS) backs this view. It found that 91% of approved plumbers believe it should be mandatory for plumbers to undertake water fittings regulations training.
CIPHE president Mel Gumbs has been meeting members across the country and is clear there’s support for the CIPHE’s manifesto commitment. He says: “We’d love to see it. I don’t know who would police it but I’d be 100% behind it. It shouldn’t be up to the police by themselves.”
Be training wise
If you are entering the industry or updating your training, make sure your course is genuine:
• Use a CIPHE Approved Training Centre
• Use a search engine to check for reviews
• Check how long the course has been running and who the provider is
• Make sure the centre is currently accredited and the course is currently accredited
How to spot a forced labour victim The signs aren’t always obvious but there are some that you may notice:
• Do they look scruffy, malnourished or injured?
• Are they acting anxious, or unable to make eye contact?
• Are they doing long hours, wearing unsuitable clothing or do they have the wrong equipment for the job?
• Is their home overcrowded, poorly maintained or are the curtains always closed?
• Do they behave like they’re being instructed by someone else, or are they picked up/dropped off at the same time and place every day or don’t have access to money or identification?
*Source: Kent Police
Take action: Be the change People being conned and treated as slaves is wrong. We can end this with mandatory registration but we can’t do it without you. Write to your MP, enclose this article and demand change. To find your MP, go to the My Society website
Then write to them at: House of Commons, Westminster, London, SW1 1AA
You can also write to: Robert Halfon MP, Chair, Education Committee Yvette Cooper MP, Chair, Home Affairs Select Committee.
How to report trafficking
Aware of an offence? Report it online or call at: 08000 121 700