According to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, there are more than 11,000 slaves living in Lithuania. Observers estimate 40 percent of identified Lithuanian victims of modern slavery are women and girls subjected to sexual exploitation within the country. Lithuanian women are also subjected to sex trafficking in Western Europe and Scandinavia. Lithuanian children and adults are increasingly forced to engage in criminal activities, such as shoplifting and drug selling, in Nordic countries and Western Europe. Lithuanian men are subjected to forced labor, including in agriculture, in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Jonas was one of these men who left in the hope of well-paid work but found instead a situation of exploitation and violence. He was able to leave the situation due to work carried out by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.
My name is Jonas. I am 46-years-old and come from a small town in Lithuania near the border with Poland. Work is hard to find in my country and it’s poorly paid when you get it. I was in debt because of a loan for medical bills for one of my children. So money was tight.
One day I was approached by a man called Mindaugas, who said he could find me a job in the UK that would pay me more in a week than I could earn in Lithuania in a month. He made it all sound very good and said I could get a good life there. It was a hard decision to leave my home country and quite scary but I needed the money.
I could not afford the fare but he told me that I could pay him back for the transport and accommodation once I started working. I had to trust him.
Along with a number of other Lithuanians we drove to the UK in a van. It took more than two days.
When we arrived we were met by a man called Marijus who took us to a house on the coast. It was very cramped with lots of people living there. They said they would find work for me and that I would have to open a bank account so that my wages could be paid into it.
It took a while to get a job and they kept telling me to be patient. I had no food and my debts were piling up. After a few weeks they took me to a factory where they prepared chickens for the supermarkets. It wasn’t pleasant and it was repetitive but I was very relieved that I was finally working for decent money.
In the first couple of weeks I was paid with cheques – not into my new bank account. I had to go to a shop where they cashed them for you. They charged commission, of course!
Marijus had his men follow me and as soon as I got the money they would force me to hand it over to them. I was very frightened and feared that if I did not do as they said they would beat me up and take it anyway. I gave them all of my wages for the week – about £260. They took £220 and gave me £40 back ‘to live on’, they said. They told me I still owed about £1,000 for the transport to the UK and my accommodation and food so far, so I should get used to it.
They were charging me about £60 per week for a bed in a shared room, sleeping on the floor with three others but they said if I did not live in the house they provided then I would not get work. I was trapped!
After a few weeks I’d had enough. They were taking nearly everything I earned. I was working for nothing. This was not the life I had been told about.
We talked in the house about what we could do. Two other men felt the same as I did and so we decided to risk it and run away. We found a different place to live but knew that we were always in danger as Marijus would come looking for us.
He managed to contact me by phone. He threatened me so we went back to the chicken factory. He had contacts there and made sure we were put on a shift where his men could watch us.
Then one day we were followed back to the flat. Marijus and his men forced their way in and threatened me. They started rifling through all my things and found what was left of the money I had brought with me from home. They took it and then found some cash withdrawal slips I had from a new bank account I had opened. They were furious and demanded my new bank card and passport. When I refused they beat me and knocked me unconscious. They searched the flat and found my bank card but I had hidden my passport in my pillow case. I told them I’d lost it. I didn’t want to give that up or there would be no chance of escape.
Marijus yelled at me: “You came here not to earn and save but to manage and get through.” In other words, he was telling me I was nothing more than their slave and was brought to the UK to earn money for them and not for me. He said if I talked to anyone I would disappear and that if I tried to get back to Lithuania they would find my family and kill them.
I guessed money was passing through the bank account they set up for me and suspected this had come from prostitution and drugs so I put a block on it. When they found out I received texts threatening my life.
Then one day at the factory I was interviewed by a woman who said she was from the Gangmasters Licensing Authority – the GLA. She said they were trying to find out if workers at the factory were legitimate and being treated and paid properly. I didn’t tell her anything at the time because I didn’t know if I could trust her but later I called and told them everything. They told me about the National Referral Mechanism for trafficking victims. Then it dawned on me. I had no idea that’s what I was until it was explained to me. Me – a victim of human trafficking!
They explained I’d been brought to the UK to be exploited. I was being forced to work. I had no control over my life. That’s what human trafficking is!
Soon after, Marijus disappeared from the house but I lived in fear he would come back one day looking for me.
The NRM moved me to the north west of England – safe from the eyes and the threats and the fists of Marijus. I stayed there for a couple of months and thought about getting another job – one where I would be paid properly and earn the kind of money I had been promised at the start. But I wanted out. I’d had enough. I wanted to go home. I wanted to be safe.
I hope Marijus and his gang will be found and pay for what they did. They are not humans. I wanted to leave this world for a time and I never want to feel that way again.
Narrative from 50 for Freedom