Beaten, starved and denied wages: Greeks rescue victims of Britain's latest 'slave labour' scandal

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The Independent Online

A group of Greek migrant workers has fled Britain under a police escort after accusing gangmasters of keeping them in unspeakable "slave-like" conditions as flower pickers in Cornwall.

A group of Greek migrant workers has fled Britain under a police escort after accusing gangmasters of keeping them in unspeakable "slave-like" conditions as flower pickers in Cornwall.

Their rescue on Tuesday night was organised by a Romany rights organisation in Greece with the help of a Greek Orthodox priest in Cornwall.

The 44 men and 10 women were being housed in tents and an unheated shed. They claim they were not paid for weeks and were only given a slice of bread and a tin of dogfood to eat at meal times.

The plight of the migrant workers, who were in Britain legally, comes a week after 19 Chinese immigrants drowned while picking cockles in Morecambe Bay.

One of the Greek workers, Chrisovalandou Mandela, 19, described her ordeal to The Independent yesterday. After a 10-hour shift in the freezing midwinter mud and rain she would trudge back to an unheated shed where she and the other women were forced to live.

Exhausted and three months pregnant, she complained earlier in the day of stomach pains but was forced to keep working.

Complaining of "slave labour conditions", in which they were beaten and intimidated by armed thugs, the 54 migrant workers returned to Greece on Wednesday after a rescue organised with the help of the Greek embassy in London.

The Greek citizens are all ethnic Romany from northern Greece. Ms Chrisovalandou claims her group was beaten, starved and denied wages before the rescue mission. Dimitris Triantafylou from Romany association in Greece said: "Two men came around the villages offering work in England for €50 (£33) a day with food and lodging.

"For us, it was an astronomical amount of money and there was no reason not to trust them. We were told they'd be staying in proper houses and would be paid at the end of each week. They said that whoever didn't like it could leave."

But when they arrived on the daffodil farm in the village of Hayle just outside Penzance conditions were not as they had been led to believe.

One of the workers, Stelios Saris, said: "We [the men] were given a tent to sleep in with all 40 of us crammed inside, while the women slept on the floor of a nearby shed. It was freezing cold and there was no heating or plumbing."

Thomas Dalipis, another of the workers, said: "We'd come back to that shed where we were sleeping and get dog food cans for dinner, not even one per person.Ten people had to share one cigarette."

Mr Saris said that, after a week of starvation rations and 10-hour days in the rain and snow, they approached their bosses to demand their money.

He said: "They refused and told us that we had to pay off €1,500 per person for our passage before we would be given money." He said there was one lavatory between 60 and when they complained and said they wanted to return home on the second Friday, they were threatened.

Mr Saris said: "They called me in and said, 'Do you know what it means to be involved with the mafia?' So I said 'no' and they showed me guns and told me no one was leaving."

After a fortnight, one of the group managed to get a phone card from the local village and raised the alarm back at home.

Apostolos Polyzos a Greek official who travelled to Britain to find the group said: "They were saying, 'Come get us, they will let us die here'."

Mr Polyzos got in touch with the Greek embassy in London, which co-ordinated a rescue mission with the help of a Greek Orthodox priest living near Penzance. Mr Polyzos said: "The gang leader wanted money to let them go. We were close to asking for the riot squads to be sent in. In the end, we rounded them up and left."

The gang leader is reportedly Angelos Christopoulos, a British citizen of Greek descent, resident in the UK. He is said to have two associates, Christos Pelaftis, from Volos, and a third person from Drama who organised the recruitment. Mr Christopoulos said problems began shortly after the workers arrived."They didn't want to work," he said. "They came here for a holiday. As soon as it rained they went inside."

Mr Christopoulos, the owner of a Hayle-based flower company, Bold Line, said he and Mr Pelaftis had been told they were recruiting "experienced workers". He denied accusations of starvation and mistreatment and said the workers had been housed in "military bunkers".

At midnight on Tuesday, the police escorted two coaches containing the workers to Heathrow airport. A police spokeswoman said none of the flower pickers had made a complaint and the gangmasters were not being investigated. Customs and Excise have also looked into the case and no action is being taken.