Thursday 4.20pm: Two men have been convicted of exploiting migrant workers by acting as unlicensed gangmasters in Fenland.
Latvians Juris Valujevs and Ivars Mezals were found guilty of acting as unlicensed gangmasters yesterday (December 17) following a nine-week trial at Blackfriars Crown Court in London.
During the trial the court heard that Valujevs, 36, of Turbus Road, Kings Lynn, and Ivars Mezals, 28, previously of Conference Way, Wisbech, were ‘business partners’, supplying a number of companies in Wisbech and across the Fens with migrant workers from the Latvian and Lithuanian communities between 2009 and 2013.
These workers told the court how they were promised plentiful and well-paid employment. In reality, they were rarely given work straight away and then work was tightly controlled, placing and keeping them in a state of ‘debt bondage’.
When they were found work, Valujevs and Mezals would intercept their wages and make unwarranted deductions for rent, debt, transport and fines, in some cases leaving them with £20 or less a week to live on.
The court heard how a female witness was told by Valujevs that she would “end up like Alisa”, which she took to be a reference to a woman whose body was found on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk in January 2012.
A further female witness told the court how Mezals had suggested paying back debt by selling her organs because she did not drink or smoke.
Valujevs and Mezals, together with Lauma Vankova , 26, of Cresswell Road, Kings Lynn, and Oksana Valujeva, 34, of Turbus Road, Kings Lynn, were also charged with conspiracy to facilitate the commission of breaches of UK immigration law by a non-EU person, in relation to what is more commonly referred to as ‘sham marriages’.
Mezals was found not guilty on this charge while the jury failed to reach verdicts on the other defendants.
Valujevs and Mezals are due to be sentenced tomorrow afternoon (December 19).
Detective Chief Inspector Donna Wass, who led the investigation, said: “Valujevs and Mezals ran an illegal operation that left many people in abject poverty and debt and a feeling there was no way out of their situation.
“The defendants promised their victims a better life in the United Kingdom with well-paid work, but instead placed them in over-crowded accommodation and controlled their work and debt.
“They ruled through fear - playing on their reputations to ensure their workers stayed in line and did not seek outside help - and approached the exploitation of people as a business opportunity.
“I hope the outcome of this case shows how seriously we take these matters and will encourage other victims of exploitation to contact police.”
GLA Chief Executive Paul Broadbent said:”It is pleasing that the defendants in this case have been exposed as modern-day slave drivers and will now face punishment for their heinous crime. This investigation also shows how effectively different organisations with different remits can come together with the over-arching objective of protecting vulnerable people.
“This case opened up other abuses in the supply chain which have since been dealt with. More than 80 exploited workers were rescued, five licences have been revoked and another refused by the GLA. One revoked licence holder has been convicted of using the services of an illegal gangmaster and received a suspended prison term and a community sentence.
“I am also very grateful to the general public, as they are our eyes and ears, helping us to identify and work with other partners to tackle what is clearly taking place within our communities.”
In early 2013 a joint agency campaign called Operation Pheasant was set up to tackle homes of multiple occupancy and poor living standards affecting economic migrants, mainly from Latvia and Lithuania, in the Wisbech area.
Pheasant revealed large-scale labour exploitation of workers, many of whom were vulnerable and at risk of serious harm. Operation Endeavour was then set up as a joint investigation with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), with the aim of identifying the exploiters and bringing them to justice.
On October 15 last year, police and the GLA led a day of action with assistance from the National Crime Agency and Fenland District Council, during which Mezals and others were arrested. Valujevs was arrested three days later having been traced by local officers.
The day of action involved more than 300 staff visiting 24 addresses. A reception centre for exploited workers was set up which received more than people, 37 of whom were accepted into the national referral mechanism for trafficked and exploited people. Others elected to remain local and were signposted to legitimate gangmasters and housing providers.
Following the day of action, two March-based licensed gangmasters, Roberto Mac Ltd and Slender Contracting Ltd, had their licenses suspended. Two days later, another licensed gangmaster, MAS Recruitment, had its license suspended following further enquiries.
In December last year, Slender Contacting Ltd and MAS Recruitment both had their licenses revoked with immediate effect preventing them from operating in the GLA regulated sector.
In March, Martyn Slender, 46, of Steeple View, March, appeared at Peterborough Magistrates’ Court. He pleaded guilty to and was convicted of contravening the Gangmasters Licensing Act by using unlicensed gangmasters to supply labour. He was jailed for 12 weeks, suspended for a year, and ordered to complete 200 hours’ unpaid work in the community.