A couple who kept vulnerable people as slaves and made them work for free at a car wash business in Bristol have been jailed for a total of 25 years following a National Crime Agency investigation.
Maros Tancos and Joanna Gomulska, both 46, were the ringleaders of a modern slavery and human trafficking operation in Bristol, persuading vulnerable people to travel from Slovakia to work for them.
Tancos would use his links to orphanages and camps in Slovakia to recruit victims, promising them transport, a place to live and food, and a better life.
Victims were told they would get to keep half of their wages every month, whilst the other half would go towards food and living costs.
However, on arrival, victims were kept in squalor in the couple’s three bedroom home in Brentry Lane, Bristol, and forced to work for free. They said they were locked in the house and had identity documents and mobile phones taken from them.
Tancos’ co-conspirator, Gomulska, helped with arrangements to transport workers in the UK. She would take their identity documents and only release them when they were needed for applications like National Insurance numbers or bank accounts.
Gomulska would accompany victims to appointments and would act as the interpreter before taking their bank cards and pin numbers.
Victims would work at Tancos’ car wash business during the day and then sent out to other jobs at night. These included catching chickens, packing milk or sorting parcels.
NCA investigators found that Tancos and Gomulska failed to pay a minimum of £923,835 in wages, calculated if Tancos had paid his victims minimum wage for eight hours a day. The pair also transferred almost £300,000 from their victims' accounts earnt whilst working at the secondary jobs.
All of the money was spent on Tancos and Gomulska’s living costs, gambling online or in casinos, and on second hand cars.
Victims said that Tancos would be violent towards them, with some describing being threatened or hit. They said they were too scared to leave the property and on many occasions were locked inside.
National Crime Agency officers started an investigation in 2017 and traced Tancos and Gomulska’s offending back to 2010. The couple were kept under surveillance as they transported their victims to and from the car wash and to other manual roles around Bristol.
A total of 42 victims were interviewed by specialist officers and 29 gave evidence of the abuse they suffered in court. Victims described their time with the defendants as ‘catastrophic’ and said they were humiliated, hit and punished by Tancos. Another described returning to Slovakia when she fell pregnant, with her child being born malnourished and suffering epileptic fits because she had no money to bring back from the UK for food.
One victim described the house as a ‘gate to hell’ and said they were not allowed to leave. They said: “The only thing I knew was work. All the time I was thinking that I was a slave there. I thought there was no way back.”
Tancos and Gomulska denied a number of modern slavery and human trafficking offences but following a trial lasting almost three months and with evidence from 15 victims, they were convicted in April 2022.
They were sentenced at the same court today. Tancos received 16 years' imprisonment and Gomulska received nine years' imprisonment. Tancos was also made subject of a Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Order (STPO). Judge Picton commended the NCA team for their work.
NCA Branch Commander Colin Williams said: “Our investigation has put these two cruel abusers behind bars for a long time. Tancos and Gomulska’s vulnerable victims were kept as prisoners and treated with utter contempt, despite promises of a better life in the UK.
“Victim testimonies showed the mental and physical scars they still carry from their treatment by the couple.
“Tackling human trafficking and modern slavery is a high priority for the NCA, and we hope this result will bring some closure to the victims.”
Safeguarding Minister Rachel Maclean said:
“Tackling modern slavery is a top priority for me, and we must ensure that victims are provided with the support they need to begin rebuilding their lives, and that criminals who cruelly exploit people for commercial gain are prosecuted.
“We have given enforcement bodies the powers and resource to take on gangs who profit from modern slavery, and thanks to the incredible work of the NCA, these criminals have now been brought to justice.”
If you have concerns about modern slavery at a business or for a person, call the Modern Slavery Helpline anonymously on 08000 121 700 or call police on 101.
22 June 2022