‘Exploited, manipulated, intimidated’ - the migrant workers at centre of sham marriages and illegal gangmasters court told
- Credit: Archant
Two Latvian men, from Wisbech and Kings Lynn, exploited intimidated and manipulated dozens of migrant workers and forced women to take part in sham marriages in an illegal gang-mastering operation, a court has heard.
Ivars Mezals, 28, and Juris Valujevs, 36, used fear and debt to control the workers who sometimes received less than £1 for a week of “back-breaking” work picking vegetables in Cambridgeshire, Blackfriars Crown Court was told.
The pair each denies one count of acting as a gang master without a licence and another of fraud.
Valujevs’ wife, Oksana Valujeva, 33, and their close friend Lauma Vankova, 26, are also standing trial accused of helping the men coerce some of the female workers to take part in sham marriages to repay thousands of pounds in “debt”.
One mother was sent to India alone for three weeks to marry a man who wanted access to the UK, while her son remained in Cambridgeshire, the jury was told.
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All four defendants deny the charges.
The workers, who were mainly from Latvia and Lithuania, travelled to the UK voluntarily but signed up for work via Mezals and Valujevs under the promise of regular hours, good pay and the “hope of a better life”, Gregory Perrins, prosecuting, told the court.
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Instead they were forced to live in cramped and dilapidated homes for double the going rate with no rental agreement, paid fines for “fanciful” reasons including smoking and were threatened if they complained, he added.
“Work was then distributed at the whim of those in control,” Mr Perrins told the jury.
“Typically work was withheld when a worker first arrived in the country until such time that they had built up a debt, initially for unpaid rent, to those exploiting them.
“This debt was then used as a means of control, preventing them from leaving or living elsewhere.
“When work was provided it was hard and back-breaking. Even so, wages were withheld on the basis that it went to clear the purported debt.
“Workers were typically left with £20 a week, even after working all week in the fields. Sometimes people were given less than a pound for a week’s work.
“Women’s purported debt often appeared to be higher than their male co-workers. Such women were offered the opportunity to clear their debts if they entered into sham marriages.”
Since 2005 potential gang masters must obtain a licence to supply workers to businesses, usually for agricultural work at short notice, and must oblige by a code of ethics.
Mezals, from Conference Way in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, Valujevs and Valujeva, from Cresswell Street in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, and Vankova, from Turbis Road in Kings Lynn, were arrested following a multi-agency operation led by Cambridgeshire Police.
The trial continues.