THE family owners of Coventry’s Wing Wah restaurant says police allegations of “modern slavery” are “completely unfounded” and have spoken of the “trauma” of bring raided.
Their robust response came as lawyers claimed the high-profile and popular restaurant’s reputation had been “severely damaged” as a result.
A fortnight ago, raids took place at three West Midlands restaurants. Two people – a 49-year-old man and woman aged 45, both Slovakian – were arrested as part of an investigation into providing eastern European workers for cheap labour. The alleged ‘modern slaves’ were taken away.
Police carried out raids at Wing Wah at the A45/Broad Lane junction, Red Leaf in West Bromwich; and Ming Moon in Wolverhampton.
A total of 20 men (12 from Wing Wah), mainly from Slovakia and Romania, were “discovered and living in poor conditions”, the police had claimed two weeks ago.
The force on August 22 added in its public statement the men had been “safeguarded” and taken to a reception centre where they would be “given an opportunity to speak to specially trained officers”.
Lawyers representing the Wing Wah and Ming Moon businesses responded by disputing the police’s figures and saying: “Following allegations and the media coverage of suspected slaves been being found at the restaurants, the reputation and livelihoods of the owners and staff of these two family run businesses has been severely damaged.”
Ms Pui Ha Lam, director and owner of Wing Wah Coventry said: “My eleven-year-old son and I were in bed when police forced their way into our living accommodation. There was a lot of noise and the police were shouting at us.
“We had no idea what was happening. I spoke little English and was completely shocked, my son was crying. I was standing in my nightwear and there was a male police officer in my bedroom. I was embarrassed and humiliated.
“My husband was in a separate room and my son was screaming for him but my husband was not allowed to come to us.
“I was eventually told that the police had a modern slavery warrant. I was completely shocked.
“I have no idea on what basis this warrant was issued. My husband and I have worked in the hospitality business for over a decade and my son attends a local Coventry junior school.
“We have a house locally but choose to stay on site a lot of the time for convenience, especially if we have a late or early shift.
“My family, especially my child, were traumatised. My staff and all three members of my family were interviewed as victims of human trafficking and modern slavery.
“The police assumed that my family were victims too just because we were also living there with our staff. I live and work with my staff and treat them as part of the family and my workers enjoy good friendly relationships with us and each other.
“They like the fact that I live there with them and there are many different nationalities and we enjoy a good banter.
“We spent over five hours at the police facility and bombarded with questions about human trafficking and modern day slavery.
“All my staff have now made statements confirming that we worked at the restaurant of our own free will and that all of them work there happily.
“Eventually we were all driven back to the respective restaurants by the police. I understand the five Slovakian agency workers were released to walk home.”
WING WAH LAWYERS’ STATEMENT...
Lawyers representing the businesses added the damaging allegations had “prompted the two companies to hold a press conference to demonstrate the allegations are completely unfounded and set the record straight.”
They added: “In addition to the media, the companies also invited a number of interested and relevant individuals including representatives from the Embassy of the Slovak Republic and the Embassy of Romania, MPs and Councillors, the police and its partner agencies including Hope for Justice, Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the National Crime Agency.
“Both Ming Moon Wolverhampton and Wing Wah Coventry are fully cooperating with the police to resolve this as a matter of urgency.
“Fourteen individuals from the Coventry restaurant and five from the Wolverhampton restaurant were taken by police to a police facility in Edgbaston, Birmingham.
“Following questioning all 19 were either returned to the respective restaurants or released to walk home, later that day.
“None had needed to be rescued and the police have not needed to take anyone to live in special safe houses.
“No further action has been taken by the police.
“In accordance with the companies’ HR policy, all employees are paid at least the statutory minimum wage and any overtime is paid or taken as holiday in lieu.
“All employees have employment contracts covering employment conditions, rights, responsibilities and duties, including hours of work, holiday entitlement and notice period.
“Most of our staff are employed directly by the company and approach the restaurants following a job vacancy notice or word of mouth. The companies employ staff from Britain, China, Romania, Slovakia and Portugal, both male and female.
“Five Slovakian employees were employed as agency staff at Wing Wah Coventry and were provided by a catering recruitment company.
“Three of these Slovakians, who were agency staff have now requested to work for Wing Wah directly as they have been very happy working at Wing Wah.
“Both Wing Wah Coventry and Ming Moon Wolverhampton offer staff accommodation above the respective restaurants, which any employee is welcome to take advantage of.
“Wing Wah Coventry offers seven-bedroom, two-bathroom accommodation which three to four members of staff are currently using on a full-time basis.”
The statement concluded: “There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate any allegations of modern slavery or human trafficking.
“The media has stated that two Slovakians had been arrested. These two individuals are not employees of Wing Wah nor Ming Moon.”
Police say their investigations continue.