Thousands of Bristolians and tourists have bought ice creams from Lopresti ice cream vans at iconic city landmarks over the decades.
For an equally long time rumours spread about their notoriety as employers and landlords. In an investigation by the Cable spanning five years that led to Modern Day Slavery charges, these rumours have been investigated and a shocking story uncovered.
Now with reporting restrictions lifted, the Cable can reveal there were men living like slaves under Salvatore Lopresti’s control, and a trail of workers and tenants exploited by the Lopresti ice cream and property business. Having had enough of living in fear, poverty and indignity, these same people spoke out.
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When Jakub*, a Polish tiler, moved to Bristol in 2008 he looked forward to a prosperous and secure life. But it wasn’t just work that pulled him westward, Jakub joined his wife who had already moved to the city.
His friends in the Polish community would share job adverts and look out for one another. Often they were tough gigs at low rates, dogsbody factory work and long hours. After six months he heard of a job going at an ice cream business with a Mr Salvatore Lopresti.
But what he found wasn’t regular employment, and he wasn’t alone in answering the same advert.
Banned as boss after 50 years of business in Bristol
October 2018 – 10 years after Jakub arrived in the city and responded to the job advert.
Salvatore Lopresti, the barrel-chested Sicilian appeared at Bristol Magistrates Court charged under the Modern Day Slavery Act for forcing Jakub to work gruelling 12-hour days for £5, for over eight years, and a charge of actual bodily harm. If found guilty, he faced the prospect of serious jail time.
A trial date was set but the evidence never made it to court. With two psychiatric reports to hand, Judge Blair at Bristol Crown Court accepted that the 75-year-old ice cream boss and property baron had dementia and was unfit to stand trial.
The Crown Prosecution Service dropped the Modern Day Slavery charge against son and joint ice cream manager, Robert Lopresti.
The inability to proceed with the prosecution came as a blow to the coppers on the case who had worked hard to build on the Cable’s findings.
But it was clear that Salvatore still posed a threat. In May 2019, he was slapped with a Slavery and Trafficking Risk Order, indefinitely banning him from activities as a boss. Having seen the evidence District Judge Matthews told Salvatore “I’m sure that there is a risk that you will commit a human trafficking or slavery offence.”
It was the first time the civil order had been issued in the Avon and Somerset Police force area. Outside Bristol Magistrates Court, DC Morgan acknowledged that the police “used the Cable’s evidence to achieve this risk order.”
This is that evidence and the full story, told for the first time.
‘I want to forget what happened there’
The freezing cold, windowless room is set back from the ice cream shop on Bedminster Parade. Environmental Health officers would later call it ‘unfit for human habitation’. For eight years, the room with a leaking corrugated plastic roof was both home and workplace for Jakub.
Over a period of eight years, Jakub, who is understood to have learning disabilities, would pull 12-hour days in summer, seven days a week and get just £5 a day. He told detectives that he sold ice creams from vans, painted and decorated, performed maintenance work on Salvatore’s rental properties and gardened at his boss’ Long Ashton home. He would even travel to Sicily with him as a helper. When he slumped with exhaustion, he’d be made to carry out a never ending list of chores, including walking Salvatore’s German Shepherd around the block.
While firmly under the control of Salvatore, Jakub told police that he also worked in ice cream vans operated by Robert Lopresti.
Soon after coming under Salvatore’s wing, things took a southward turn between Jakub and his wife. And the work he would find, was far from prosperous.
As soon as he had taken up Salvatore’s offer of work and board, his ID documents were confiscated. They were needed for ‘some formalities’, said Salvatore. With his work and shelter now in the hands of his boss, Jakub found himself caught in a pattern of vindictive and controlling behaviour by Salvatore that ranged from petty bullying to grotesque abuse.
In a situation sure to make stomachs turn, Jakub was led to believe that his full wages were being safely held back to ensure that he didn’t squander it, and would be returned when he stopped working for the Lopresti ice cream and property business.
On one occasion, Salvatore docked Jakub’s pay to cover unpaid rent from another one of his tenants. Jakub was assured by Salvatore that the tenant would pay him back. He never did.
On another, Salvatore cut Jakub’s money after forcing him to make repairs to the squalid room that he was living in behind the shop.
When Jakub demanded his identity documents be returned, Salvatore threw a photocopy of his ID card at his feet and mocked him that he could even travel to America on it.
The forced labour – as the Crown Prosecution Service claimed it was – then morphed into a vicious assault on a cold December day in 2016.
While cleaning the ice cream vans, Jakub grew frustrated at being ordered around. Again he asked for his ID documents and money. He wanted out.
Armed with a heavy broomstick, Salvatore struck him hard across the face at least three times. He managed to escape from under the blows to his room. Jakub tried to recover in bed but was beset with headaches and the whites of his eyes turned a dark red. He started to vomit blood, and it was then he took himself to hospital.
The police were already acting on the information provided by the Cable and after the assault, arrests were made. Jakub got out and entered the National Referral Mechanism – the government programme designed to support victims of modern day slavery.
Jakub now lives at a secret location in another city in the UK. Since leaving he says he now feels like living again. “I want to improve my life, find a job and forget what happened there,” he says.
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A statement issued to the Cable by the business denied these allegations against Salvatore and Robert saying “Mr S Lopresti does not accept the truth of all of the matters alleged against him.” The statement added that Mr Salvatore Lopresti has not been convicted of any of the charges made against him and charges against Mr Robert Lopresti were dropped.
But Jakub wasn’t the only one to have alleged to have been living in slave-like conditions.
Now with reporting restrictions lifted, the Cable can reveal there was a second man under Salvatore’s control, whose living situation also appeared to be modern day slavery according to experts.
The man paid 55p per hour
“You should check out the Lopresti family ice cream business.” That was the tip-off the Cable received from a kitchen porter in 2014 during our first ever investigation into the catering sector.
Lopresti ice creams paid hundreds of thousands to secure a monopoly on the pitches awarded by the council at key locations and iconic sites in the city. As of April 2019 they have lost all but two pitches.
The company is owned by relatives of Tory MP for Filton and Bradley Stoke, Jack Lopresti.
We tracked down three former workers who said the same thing: they were paid about £2 per hour to work in ice cream vans.
Most seriously, they mentioned a profound sense of unease when discussing a man, possibly two, who appeared to be under the under the thumb of Salvatore Lopresti. It sounded like modern day slavery.
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Keen to run the story, but concerned for the welfare of the individuals, the Cable liaised with anti-slavery charities and solicitors. On their advice and with the permission of sources, the Cable submitted evidence to the police about working conditions and potential victims of slavery at the business.
But with an abysmally low rate of modern day slavery prosecutions nationally, we did not leave it to the police.
An undercover Cable journalist got a job working for the Lopresti ice cream and property business. Not only was he paid little more than £3 an hour to sell ice cream to unassuming punters near the M-Shed and Clifton Suspension Bridge, but he confirmed the existence of a man we’ll call ‘A’.
“From what I could tell he [A] seemed intimidated by Salvatore Lopresti in particular, and was often shouted at. He was always working when I saw him. He did not look healthy,” said the Cable’s reporter.
LISTEN: A – The second alleged slave, forced to work for 55p an hour, 6.5 days a week for years
We met with A at an undisclosed location. Similar to Jakub, he too worked for Salvatore from 2011 to 2016, on everything from gardening at his family home and repairs at the Bedminster HQ, to selling ice creams.
During the summer months, he would be on shift nine hours a day, 6.5 days a week. He was paid £105 a week, but £75 was deducted immediately by Salvatore Lopresti as rent for his board – the same damp shack where Jakub lived. On average, A was paid 55p per hour.
Anti-slavery agencies and the police were so concerned about A’s welfare that they repeatedly asked him to enter the National Referral Mechanism. But he refused and went underground.
Careful to not jeopardize the police investigation, but aware that the public needed to know what was going on, in 2017 we published the minimum wage scandal information gathered from the workers and the undercover journalist. At this point the full picture became clearer.
“You better think twice,” said the slum landlord
After the story broke, the name ‘Lopresti’ was removed from all the ice cream vans in the city, but word had already spread.
Dozens of former workers and tenants contacted the Cable, revealing a litany of mistreatment by the family business stretching back decades.
From Clifton to Totterdown, at least 28 properties are owned by Salvatore and Robert Lopresti, and Grandbill Limited, a private company owned by Salvatore, his wife Micelina Lopresti and daughter Maria Licata.
Despite a property portfolio worth millions of pounds, many of the properties are in a horrendous state of disrepair. Deposits are not protected or returned, the business is a cash operation, and Salvatore and Robert routinely turn up unannounced. The Lopresti ice cream and property business did not respond to questions regarding the significant amounts of cash being collected or the conditions of the property.
Mapped: Stories of a business built on exploitation – Millions in unsafe properties and pennies for workers in ice cream monopoly
Tenants alleged that the abusive behaviour faced by workers carried over into the property business.
“He [Salvatore Lopresti] tried to get in but I wouldn’t let him in.” One tenant recounted an unannounced visit by Salvatore. “So he just started jabbing me in the side of the arm and keeps on doing it and starts calling me ‘the biggest cunt’ he’d ever met”, the tenant said.
WATCH:The tenant who lived in fear of Salvatore Lopresti
When Anna* arrived to the UK with her family, she moved straight into one of Salvatore’s houses.
“The walls of the flat sweated and dripped continuously, being wet and sticky, there was leaks from the ceiling, apparently from the top floor flat shower,” she said, adding “basically we stayed there because we had no more options.”
Like Jakub and A, some tenants were offered work in the ice cream business. Anna and her husband were in need of quick money and took up the offer, but soon found themselves in trouble.
They endured 10-hour shifts for no more than £25. Eventually, Anna’s husband’s desperate search for another job paid off. When they announced they would no longer to be working for the Lopresti ice cream and property business they were confronted. Salvatore threatened to evict them, and his son Robert told Anna: “You better think twice because you have a small daughter and you will not like to be living under a bridge”, adding that he knew what school Anna’s daughter attended.
WATCH: Anna – The mum paid £2 an hour, threatened and made to live in squalor
Anna and her husband were ready to “forget about the ‘English Dream’… Obviously when we went to England we were looking for a better life and that was not better,” Anna told the Cable.
Anna is one of the many who have spoken out. “I really appreciate the opportunity that you are giving me to speak out about this because I wasn’t brave enough at the time, or I couldn’t do it at the time, so I’m happy I’m doing it now.”
The Lopresti ice cream and property business did not respond to these allegations.
‘I’m sure that there is a risk that you will commit a human trafficking or slavery offence’
After Salvatore’s unfit to plead ruling, the police tried a different approach – a civil order banning certain business activity. It was a halfway house measure, but one which would hurt the boss.
Granting the first ever Slavery and Trafficking Risk Order of its kind in the Avon and Somerset Police area, District Judge Matthews told Salvatore Lopresti: “I’m sure that there is a risk that you will commit a human trafficking or slavery offence.”
“Capito” – I got it – Lopresti muttered to his Italian interpreter. Ater 50 years of work in the city, the judge declared Salvatore indefinitely banned from managing or employing staff, and also from leasing them property.
The story isn’t over
Although he escaped prosecution, the Slavery and Trafficking Risk Order made against Salvatore in May 2019 spells the end of his activities as a boss.
Salvatore and Robert own and rent out a handsome array of properties in the city. And although his company has lost many of the council allocated ice cream pitches, the pitch at Greville Smyth Park is still registered to Salvatore. Robert sells sweet treats from his van at the M-Shed. It’s not yet clear what action the council will take to ensure their tenants are safe and workers paid.
“It’s really sad,” said Anna “To think that he is taking advantage of people that came in the same situation that he once did.”
While the story isn’t over there can be some relief for those who Salvatore ruthlessly exploited for years. “Sometimes when I recall it I am unable to sleep” Jakub says, “but I try only to think of the future”.
*Names have been changed
Additional reporting by Alec Saelens
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