Two men have been jailed after they were convicted of exploiting migrant workers by acting as unlicensed gangmasters.
Latvians Juris Valujevs and Ivars Mezals were found guilty of acting as unlicensed gangmasters following a nine-week trial at Blackfriars Crown Court in London.
On Friday, Mezals, 36, of Turbus Road, North Lynn, was sentenced to 16 months in prison, while Valujevs, 28, of Conference Way, Wisbech, was jailed for 18 months.
The court heard that Valujevs and Mezals were business partners, supplying a number of companies with migrant workers from the Latvian and Lithuanian communities between 2009 and 2013.
Workers told the court how they were promised plentiful and well-paid employment. In reality, they were rarely given work straightaway 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.
A female witness was told by Valujevs that she would “end up like Alisa”, which she took to be a reference to 17-year-old Alisa Dmitrijeva, whose body was found on the Sandringham Estate on January 1, 2012.
Another told the court Mezals 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 Street, 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 are commonly known as “sham marriages.”
Mezals was cleared on that charge while the jury failed to reach verdicts on the other defendants.
Det Chief Insp Donna Wass, of Cambridgeshire Police, 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.
“The defendants promised their victims a better life in the UK with well-paid work, but 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.”
Gangmaster Licensing Agency chief executive Paul Broadbent said the investigation also exposed other abuses, leading to the rescue of more than 80 exploited workers.
He said: “It is pleasing the defendants have been exposed as modern-day slave drivers and will now face punishment for their heinous crime.
“This investigation shows how effectively different organisations with different remits can come together with the overarching objective of protecting vulnerable people.
“I am very grateful to the public, as they are our eyes and ears, helping us to work with other partners to tackle what is clearly taking place within our communities.”