Jail for Latvians who “ruled by fear” to exploit migrant workers and warned any who complained they would “end up like Alisa”

Juris Valujevs

Juris Valujevs - Credit: Archant

Two men who “ruled by fear” to exploit migrant workers in Fenland have been sentenced.

Ivars Mezals

Ivars Mezals - Credit: Archant

Latvians Juris Valujevs and Ivars Mezals were found guilty of acting as unlicensed gangmasters on Wednesday following a nine-week trial at Blackfriars Crown Court in London.

Today, Valujevs, 36, of Turbus Road, Kings Lynn, was sentenced to one year and four months while Mezals, 28, previously of Conference Way, Wisbech, was given an 18 month sentence.

During the trial the court heard that Valujevs and Mezals were ‘business partners’, supplying companies 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.

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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.

Detective Chief Inspector Donna Wass, who led the investigation, said: “I hope this court case has shown how seriously we and the courts take these matters.

“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 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.

To report exploitation call police on 101.