Travellers Jailed For Forced Labour

Two travellers who exploited vulnerable men and made them work long hours with no pay, live in tents and suffer beatings in Hampshire have been jailed.

Victor Romain, 56 and Christopher Groombridge, 32, suffered at the hands of John Connors and his brother-in-law William (Billy) Connors for around five months.

The men, who were homeless or had drink problems, were approached by the Connors family and told they could work laying block paving or tarmac for £30 or £40-a-day and they would also be given food and accommodation.

But instead they received little cash for up to 80 hours' work a week with no health and safety training nor the proper tools, Southampton Crown Court was told.

Both men today pleaded guilty to requiring their victims to perform forced or compulsory labour between April 2010 and June 2011, on the eve of their retrial.

John Connors was sentenced to 40 months in prison and William Connors was jailed for 30 months.

They had previously denied the charges and other more serious counts of holding the men in slavery or servitude and not guilty verdicts were ordered on these counts.

The court heard the victims were beaten or threatened with violence, discouraged from speaking to family or the public and had their heads shaved.

Mr Romain said he was punched in the head and hit with a shovel by John Connors after he lost £20 for fuel, the court heard. His passport and wallet were also taken.

John Connors was described as the boss but both men were always together, although Billy Connors had not been violent, the court was told.

The men also had to do menial and degrading tasks like pick up cigarettes butts at the campsites and collect the rubbish the Connors threw out of their caravans.

When police raided where they were living at an illegal traveller camp in Hamble, Hampshire in June 2011 the men were living in tents with no running water and had to use the woods to go to the toilet.

Meanwhile, the defendants were living in luxury caravans with John Connors owning a convertible car worth £45,000, Charles Thomas, prosecuting, said.

"The defendants took advantage of these vulnerable men to treat them in ways that they were effectively forced to carry out work at the defendants' behest,'' he explained.

Mr Romain led police to the men after his probation officer alerted them to his plight.

Mr Thomas said Mr Groombridge had been tracked down when he left because of his treatment and he was threatened with a beating and told he must work off a debt.

He was also forced to fight three rounds with another man and felt he could not refuse.

Mr Thomas said this was an example of the "coercion, control and intimidation'' the Connors had over the men.

Mr Groombridge also told police he was "worked and ate like a horse'' and was taken to a tattoo parlour to have a tattoo of a Ferrari horse on his back.

But instead John and Billy Connors pressured him into having a travellers' horse put on with a large penis on it.

The court heard in mitigation that the men were given ample food, plus money for alcohol and tobacco and could leave the site and often did.

The victims had been picked up begging in the streets and placed with the traveller community and had initially been housed in caravans.

Some men working for the Connors said they were happy with their lot, the court heard.

When arrested John Connors, 31, from Little Billington, Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, denied he was a boss and said the workers had been paid.

Billy Connors, 38, from Bestwood Road, Nottingham, made no comment.

Sentencing the pair, Judge Peter Henry said the men were vulnerable, had been exploited and humiliated and lived in squalor.

"You both earned considerable money by employing - and I use the word loosely - men to do hard manual labour for you. You had a good and comfortable standard of living.''

The judge dismissed any suggestion the pair had been helping the men.

"It was exploitation of vulnerable men that is abhorrent in a civilised society,'' he said.

"When people have lost their dignity and hope they are likely to be pathetically reliant on those who offer them scraps.''