One of Cambridgeshire's oddest traditions gets under way this morning...
Wisbech Man Exploited Migrants
Two Latvian men accused of exploiting migrant workers in Cambridgeshire have been found guilty of taking part in an illegal gangmastering operation.
Ivars Mezals, 28, and another 36 year-old from Norfolk allegedly used fear and debt to control workers who sometimes received less than £1 for a week of "back-breaking" work picking vegetables in Cambridgeshire, Blackfriars Crown Court in London was told.
The pair were each found guilty earlier of acting as a gangmaster without a licence between January 2009 and October 2013, though for legal reasons the verdict can only be reported now.
The jury cleared Mezals of a charge of conspiracy to help breach UK immigration law by arranging sham marriages.
Mezals, from Conference Way in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire and several other men were arrested in October last year in raids led by Cambridgeshire Police.
Jurors in the nine-week trial have been considering their verdicts since last Thursday.
The migrant workers, who were mainly from Latvia and Lithuania, travelled to the UK voluntarily, but signed up for work via Mezals under the promise of regular well-paid work, decent accommodation and the "hope of a better life" the court was told.
Instead they were forced to live in cramped and dilapidated homes, paid fines for "fanciful" reasons including smoking and were threatened if they complained, he added.
Work was distributed at the whim of those in control, and the workers fell into debt - the 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.
One woman was fined £100 a day when she was unable to work because her child was ill, the court heard.
Migrants who complained about their unfair debt were told if "you don't pay, your life will be ended like Alisa's (Dmitrijeva)"; the Latvian teenager found murdered on the Queen's Sandringham Estate in 2012.
Since 2005, potential gangmasters must obtain a licence to supply workers to businesses, which are usually agricultural farms in need of casual and cheap labour at short notice, and must oblige by a code of ethics.
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