Gangmaster Victor Solomka was penniless when he arrived in Britain in 2000, but managed to build a £2m personal fortune "on other people's misery".

Between 2001 and 2004, when he was arrested, he employed 700 people, mainly eastern Europeans who were forced to work in fish factories in Scotland and farms in East Anglia, generating £5m.

In the mornings, each worker was allowed only three minutes in the toilet, and food consisted of communal cooking of factory-sale meat or cheap cuts such as pigs' tails.

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At each turn their wages, lives and future were in the hands of an exploitative "recruiter" who arranged work for them through a combination of bribes and coercion.

The Ukrainian paid hundreds of thousands of pounds into personal bank accounts and had a comfortable family house and expensive cars while his workers were labouring for a pittance before returning to squalid, crowded accommodation they rented from him.

They received as little as £4 an hour for 15-hour days. In 2005, Solomka, 47, was found guilty of conspiracy to facilitate breaches of immigration law and money laundering. Some 38 immigrant workers in north-east Scotland were arrested as part of the investigation.

Solomka's right-hand man, Aleksander Pianzin, a 43-year-old Russian, of Fraserburgh, was jointly charged with conspiracy and pleaded guilty before the trial, which was held in England.

The case cast a rare glimmer of light on the dark world of the illegal gangmaster, but it was a small success in the fight against a burgeoning global trade. Authorities do not know how many people are in thrall to illegal gangmasters in the UK.

Estimates suggest 3000 gangmasters and some 60,000 gangworkers are involved. Many of these, counted in the 2002 census of agriculture and horticulture, will be legal operations but the figures do not include food processing or Britain's other twilight industries, catering and cleaning, which rely on immigrant labour. The real number of workers could be more than 100,000.

"Because there is no baseline, it is hard say on whether the problem is getting worse or better," said a spokesman for the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA). Last year, Fiona Clark, a Scots businesswoman, was the first person in the UK to be convicted of being an illegal gangmaster for supplying workers to farms north of the border, despite having been refused a licence by regulatory body the GLA.

Since October 1, 2006, supplying labour to industries such as shellfish gathering without GLA approval has been punishable by up to 10 years in jail and an unlimited fine.

The GLA, which was created followed the outcry over the drowning of 23 cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004, regulates those who supply labour or use workers to provide services in agriculture, forestry, horticulture, food processing and packaging.

The court heard Clark would have earned up to £20,000. She could have served a decade in prison but she was ultimately sentenced to 140 hours of community service and 18 months' probation.

More than 200 years after the chains and shackles of the official slave trade were abolished, far subtler forms of servitude, their restraints of threats and intimidation thinner than the finest spun silk and invisible to the human eye, are flourishing.

While there has been progress in prosecuting gangmasters involved in forced labour in agriculture across the UK, there is growing concern at the methods used by gangmasters and human traffickers.

In England and Wales, there have been 92 convictions for trafficking for sexual exploitation and four for forced labour, in relation to farm and factory workers.

To date, there have been no convictions north of the border in relation to trafficking for sexual exploitation, despite Scotland having a disproportionately high share of the victims identified during Pentameter 2, the UK-wide police operation on human trafficking which concluded 12 months ago.

Although one person was indicted north of the border, the case was dropped because of a lack of evidence. Officers say the nature of the crime makes it particularly difficult to prosecute. Most of the victims have suffered threats and violence and fear, not just for their lives but those of their families.

"It is a commodity for criminal networks - like illicit drugs and firearms," said Chief Inspector Cameron Cavin of Strathclyde Police. "It is just far less tangible. The crucial thing is to protect the victim and reassure them that Scotland will provide them with the highest level of support.

"The sex industry in Scotland and Glasgow is significant and has become much more complex to police. It is very difficult to know the full extent of it because it is so hidden."

It is not to say that nothing is being done, but while forces like Strathclyde are keen to make it a priority, other senior officers said privately it is "not a problem here in Scotland".

For the sceptics, there are the recent undeniable figures. In 2006, during Operation Pentameter 1, forces in Scotland visited 25 premises, made 12 arrests and uncovered 10 women, five of whom were confirmed as trafficking victims.

During Operation Pentameter 2, which ran from late 2007 to early 2008, more than 50 premises were visited in Scotland and 59 people were dealt with as victims of trafficking. Some 35 suspects were arrested and £17,455 cash was seized.

The operations were praised but there is concern forces are bringing insufficient daily focus to bear on this modern-day slavery. "Where we are with human trafficking now is about where we were with drugs or domesticabusethree decadesago,"said Paddy Tomkins, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland.

"We need to do more work on this. If we don't open up resources, our policing of trafficking will not develop. We won't get better intelligence unless we address the problem." While policing serious organised crime is within the national "Scottish Strategic Assessment" of priorities set by ministers, and human trafficking falls within its parameters, there is concern that tackling human trafficking per se is not a specific strategic priority at force level.

Officers said: "It will be investigated where there is intelligence available to support resource allocation."

However, the intelligence is often scant because the crime is hidden behind closed doors and the victims are often too afraid to talk about their experiences. Without the intelligence to make it a day-to-day priority, it is struggling to compete with the other more "visible" demands on forces.

Some, such as Strathclyde, are doing more work on it than others. "We are not doing enough on this currently and it is a real frustration that we can not do more," said one senior officer.

"This is a hugely important issue, not just for police forces tackling serious and organised crime and protecting victims, but for society. The Pentameter operations have been successful, but why not address the issue as part of our core business rather than in one-off ops?

"The full extent of the problem has not been accurately measured and we are working on estimates rather than a scientifically-produced number. This is a hugely complex issue with no easy answers. Were the resources available to dedicate further staff to this then this would undoubtedly be to our advantage.

"However, unless additional resources are available, this would mean redirecting staff from another area."

The Herald has seen a redacted copy of an official unpublished report suggesting the level of human trafficking is higher than current estimates and recommending Scotland set up a specialist unit to tackle the issue and ensure officers are suitably trained. Ann Hamilton, head of the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance (Tara), suggested greater training for frontline staff in this complex area would be beneficial.

"Trafficking should be dealt with by the police in the same way as drugs and gun running," she said.

"I think the referrals to us have increased because of growing confidence in the work we do but also because trafficking is a growing problem. The only way to stop trafficking is to stop the demand for prostitution. There has been a complacency for many years that prostitution is not harmful and we have seen how wrong that is."

Many of the victims are here illegally and their trafficking ordeal is no guarantee to being granted leave to remain.

For those fearing the threats of their traffickers in the UK and in their source countries, there is little reprieve.

There is no safe house in Scotland and children are not eligible for the specialist support offered by Tara.

Female victims in England and Wales are supported through the Ministry of Justice-funded Poppy Project in London, which has a safe house with 35 beds. They admit they have already had to turn women away because of a lack of spaces.

Under the new ratified treaty due to be introduced across the UK on April 1, victims' reflection period will be extended to 45 days with the potential to extend it up to 12 months, but there are concerns about how people will be identified as victims, and how children will fare.

The lack of specialist accommodation in Scotland meant many of the victims identified under Pentameter 2 had to be sent to a Salvation Army Project in Durham. Some were detained at Dungavel. Many of them simply disappeared.

Research, confirmed by senior officers in Scotland, indicates that a significant proportion of these victims are subsequently re-trafficked in the UK, or once they have been deported.

"These women are the victims of crime and yet so often they are treated like criminals or animals," said Mairead Tagg, of Greater Easterhouse Women's Aid.

"There is nowhere for these women to go and many of them simply fall through the net. While Tara can help those trafficked for sexual exploitation, there are others trafficked into domestic servitude, and some brought to Scotland having been told they would enter an arranged marriage only to be treated as slaves.

"Too often we end up punishing these women for having been abused.

"We have to wake up to the plight of women in our own country who have been the victims of the most serious and devastating crime."

Service that provides support THE Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance (Tara), funded by the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council, has received 59 referrals since its creation in 2005. It is the only service providing support to women found in Scotland over the age of 18 who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation. Strathclyde Police, the Scottish Refugee Council, health visitors, solicitors and GPs can make referrals. The women referred have been from countries including Slovakia, Lithuania, Ghana, Nigeria, China, Kenya, Pakistan, Brazil, Russia, Gambia, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

A united nations' of female suffering

More than 1000 women have been referred to the Poppy Project in London since it was set up to support women trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Countries of origin include: Nigeria 131 Lithuania 124 China 88 Albania 86 Thailand 70 Romania 58 Uganda 42 Unknown 41 Moldova 35 United Kingdom 27 Ukraine 27 Russia 26 Poland 24 Czech Republic 22 Latvia 21 Cameroon 18 Vietnam 17 Slovakia 15 Sierra Leone 14 Malaysia 14 Kenya 12 Jamaica 11 Belarus 11 Ghana 10 Bangladesh 10 Other countries include: Liberia, Kazakhstan, Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro, India, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Germany, Zimbabwe, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal and Philippines

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