In a case that has horrified even seasoned detectives, the Rooney family based in Lincolnshire, England were sentenced this month to 80 years collectively after it was discovered they kept up to 18 men as modern-day slaves, one for more than 25 years, earning huge sums of money in the process.

Rooney family convicted members

The eleven convicted members of the Rooney family.

It is reported the family made at a least £.1.5 million from keeping these men and forcing them to work. Money which paid for more than comfortable lifestyles for the Rooney family members; nice clothes, dinners out, the latest gadgets and holidays whenever they wanted, while the men they were subjecting to slavery suffered hour after hour.

“None of the men, in my judgement, were ever truly free to leave at all. You stripped them of dignity and humanity and confined them to a life of drudgery”.

The family were travellers based across a number of sites in Lincoln. Victims were forced to work on the traveller sites themselves or carry out manual labour by laying new paving and driveways for local business and residential homes who had no idea the workers had been trafficked into the company and were being forced to live and work in horrendous conditions.

The men the Rooney family forced into labour were made to live in squalid conditions.

The squalid conditions the men were made to live in.

Found sleeping rough on the streets, the Rooney’s offered these vulnerable men, many suffering with mental health problems and addictions to alcohol and drugs, accommodation, food, and clothing in exchange for honest work. Once the men were taken to the traveller site populated with caravans they were forced to live in squalid conditions with no heat, running water or toilet facilities. Their food was limited or withheld from them with drugs and alcohol often used as a method of control. One victim has reported he was forced to ‘dig his own grave’ and threatened that’s where ‘he would end up’ if he did not agree to the Rooney’s demands and remain their servant for the rest of his life.

On 12 September 2017, 11 members of the Rooney family were sentenced after successful convictions on charges of conspiracy to require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour, fraud, assault, and theft.

55-year-old Bridget and 57-year-old Martin Rooney were the heads of the family, with their three sons, 31-year-old twins Patrick and John Rooney, and brother 23-year-old Martin Rooney working with them as part of the family business and in the trafficking scam. The twins received the longest sentences at 15 years each with their parents receiving 10 years and 7 years, respectively. Martin Rooney was handed a two-year suspended sentence. Further members of the family were also convicted on slavery charges and given prison sentences ranging from 12 months suspended sentences to six years including Peter Doran, Patrick Rooney, John Rooney, Gerard Rooney, Lawrence Rooney and another Martin Rooney. Two further members of the family were acquitted of the charges against them.

“They were given scraps of food that were mainly leftovers from family meals, complete with bite marks, but only after working long hard hours tarmacking driveways and fitting block paving.”

There is no typical victim of slavery,says Unseen, a charity working hard and achieving results in tackling the growing problem of human trafficking in the UK and abroad. They highlight the problem is “more prevalent among the most vulnerable or within minority of socially excluded groups”.

Modern slavery poster from South Yorkshire Police

Modern slavery awareness poster from South Yorkshire Police

Anti-Slavery reports that while “most people are trafficked into the UK from overseas, but there is also a significant number of British nationals in slavery.” The UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act has enabled traffickers like the Rooney family who have forced victims into labour, to be prosecuted under charges related to slavery. It is an act that still needs improving says Anti-Slavery, to ensure the right protection and support is provided to victims.

This month the United Nations agency for the world of work the International Labour Organization published their statistics from new research which they carried out with the international human rights organisation, Walk Free Foundation. They state that “more than 40 million people around the world were victims of modern slavery in 2016”. Of those 40 million, around 25 million of them were in forced labour.

“This speaks to the deep-seated discrimination and inequalities in our world today, coupled with a shocking tolerance of exploitation. This has to stop,” said Andrew Forrext, Chairman and Founder of the Walk Free Foundation.

According to Lincolnshire police, the Rooney family also ran scams targeting elderly people and their homes, manipulating them by getting them to sign over their houses. The Rooney’s convinced these vulnerable people that their house would be renovated and then leased back to them, which didn’t happen. These people lost their homes and were left with nothing while the Rooney’s sold the properties and benefited from the full profits of those sales.

The famiy’s control over the victims they trafficked was finally destroyed in a police operation named ‘Operation Pottery’, with multiple search warrants activated at the same time across Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire in September 2014. Six people were arrested during these raids and six slavery victims taken from the sites and into the care of health specialists and the UK Human Trafficking Centre and British Red Cross.

One of the caravans victims of the Rooney family were forced to live in.

One of the caravans victims of the Rooney family were forced to live in.

After these raids, a further 10 victims were found who had managed to get away from the Rooneys.  Including two earlier identified victims, this brought the total victims to 18. The identities of the victims will remain anonymous for their own protection and will help enable them to try and rebuild their lives.

They were promised that they would be looked after, sheltered and fed in return for work and were then trafficked into the site. In fact they were being completely exploited – working long hours tarmacking driveways and block paving for the family,” said Lincolnshire police.

The ‘employees’ were not paid very much if at all. When they weren’t working for the company the men had to collect scrap, sweep, tidy up or look after pets around the sites. This exploitation was illegally funding a lavish lifestyle for the defendants. While their ‘labourers’ were suffering, this family were taking luxurious holidays to Barbados, Australia, Egypt and Mexico, the purchase of high performance BMWs, spa days and even cosmetic surgery,” they continued in a press release after the sentencing.

The National Crime Agency has stated the levels of modern slavery within the UK are increasing and “exploitation that amounted to slavery was rife and often in plain sight”, the Guardian reported last month. The extent of the exploitation of multiple victims over years by the Rooney family has come as a shock to many. It is a case which highlights how human trafficking can take place within the UK with few realizing what was happening.

With the Rooneys behind bars, it can only be hoped that the many victims who suffered at their hands will now be able to rebuild their lives. Chief Superintendent Chris Davison of Lincolnshire Police said after the sentencing, “The victims will never get the years back that were taken away from them but I hope this provides them with some comfort that justice has been served.