Four jailed for total of more than 23 years after Operation Pheasant secures conviction to end exploitation of migrant workers in the Wisbech area.

Left to right: Juris Valujevs, Oksana Valujeva, Lauma Vankova and Ivars Mezals.

Left to right: Juris Valujevs, Oksana Valujeva, Lauma Vankova and Ivars Mezals. - Credit: Archant

Two men and two women were jailed for a total of more than 23 years after Operation Pheasant secured a significant conviction to end exploitation of migrant workers in the Wisbech area.

Juris Valujevs, 37, Lauma Vankova, 27, Oksana Valujeva, 35, and Ivars Mezals, 30, were found guilty of conspiracy to acquire criminal property two months ago following a trial at Huntingdon Crown Court.

Vankova, Valujeva and Valujevs were also found guilty of assisting an immigration offence, namely arranging sham marriages.

Yesterday, at the same court, Valujevs, of Turbus Road, King’s Lynn, was jailed for three years for the criminal property offence and five-and-a-half years for the immigration offence, the sentences to run consecutively.

Vankova, of Creswell Street, King’s Lynn, and Valujeva, of Turbus Road, King’s Lynn, were each jailed for two years and four years on the same charges respectively, again to run consecutively. Mezals, previously of Conference Road, Wisbech, but now of Reading, was jailed on his single charge for three years.


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Vankova, Valujeva and Valujevs had been tried for the sham marriage offences as part of a previous trial at Blackfriars Crown Court in 2014; however, the jury had failed to reach a verdict.

At the same trial, Latvians Valujevs and Mezals were found guilty of acting as unlicensed gangmasters. For that offence Valujevs was sentenced to one year and four months while Mezals was given an 18 month sentence.

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Their convictions are a result of Operation Endeavour, a joint police and Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) investigation to tackle the large-scale exploitation of workers.

Detectives working on Endeavour discovered all four defendants were using the bank accounts of victims to commit offences.

The court heard victims would be brought to the UK, housed in accommodation controlled by the defendants and placed in debt bondage through the withholding of work and overcharging for transport and rent.

They would be taken to banks to open accounts in their own names but using the contact details of either Vankova, Valujeva or Mezals so they could control the accounts.

The jury also found that Vankova, Valujeva and Valujevs had either offered or forced three women to go through with sham marriages in order to repay debt.

One woman was offered £2,000 but refused to go through with the marriage while another was told she would receive £1,500 for marrying a man in India. She did go through with the marriage in order to pay a £1,000 debt but said she was never paid and Valujevs used the money to buy a new car.

Detective Inspector Jenny Bristow said: “I hope today’s sentencing and the previous two trials have shown how seriously we and the courts take this type of exploitation.

“The operation run by the defendants left many people in abject poverty and debt and all four defendants ruthlessly took advantage of the victims for their own gain.

“We know the exploitation of vulnerable people, many of whom simply want to make a better life for themselves in the United Kingdom, is still happening. However, we are committed to working with colleagues in partner agencies to protect vulnerable people and bring those who commit criminal offences against them to justice.”

Operation Endeavour was launched as a result of a joint agency campaign called Operation Pheasant which began in early 2013 with the aim of tackling homes of multiple occupancy and poor living standards affecting economic migrants, mainly from Latvia and Lithuania, in the Wisbech area.

Pheasant continues today with officers working with colleagues from Fenland District Council and the GLA to combat exploitation and associated crime in Fenland.

Officers have built strong links to the Eastern European community, enabling them to identify criminal organisations and obtain information and intelligence.

The Op Pheasant team is seen as a best practice for how to deal with trafficking and exploitation and is recognised by foreign embassies of Eastern European countries that have been affected.

The 2015 trial of Valujevs and Mezals took place at Blackfriars crown court, London.

The court had heard the gateway to their operations was an illegal gangmaster operation run by them out of Wisbech. That provided them with a steady turnover of migrant workers whose identities they could hijack, the court heard.

They recruited people in Eastern Europe, or locally, on the promise of work, and housed them in crowded gang houses in the Wisbech area.

Rent was typically £50-60 a week even when sleeping three or four to a room, and transport to the fields and factories was charged at £7-8 a day, even when work did not materialise, so that workers ended up controlled by debt to the men.

Valujevs and Mezals were convicted and jailed for acting as gangmasters without a licence.

The gateway to their operations was an illegal gangmaster operation run by Valujevs and Mezals out of Wisbech. That provided them with a steady turnover of migrant workers whose identities they could hijack, the court heard.

They recruited people in Eastern Europe, or locally, on the promise of work, and housed them in crowded gang houses in the Wisbech area. Rent was typically £50-60 a week even when sleeping three or four to a room, and transport to the fields and factories was charged at £7-8 a day, even when work did not materialise, so that workers ended up controlled by debt to the men.

Following that trial Det Chief Insp Wass had described how the operation run by Valujevs and Mezals “left many people in abject poverty and debt with seemingly no way out of their situation.

“Victims were promised a better life in the United Kingdom with well-paid work, but were placed in over-crowded accommodation and had their work and debt controlled for them.

“Valujevs and Mezals 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.”

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. 2013, 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.

At the same time, the GLA suspended the licences of March-based recruitment agencies Roberto Mac Ltd, and Slender Contracting Ltd.

Around 80 individuals were removed to a temporary reception centre where they were given assistance by Fenland District Council, the Red Cross and Salvation Army in finding alternative employment and accommodation. The reception centre is now closed.

The day of action was part of a multi-agency inquiry into the exploitation of migrant workers in the Wisbech area. Those involved were mainly from Lithuania and Latvia but also included workers from Poland, Russia and Estonia.

The investigation was begun by the GLA eight months ago.

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