Gang treated migrant workers 'like slaves'

A gang recruited migrant workers and then treated them as "slaves", forcing them to live in dirty, cramped conditions as they picked leeks that would ultimately be sold to Tesco and Waitrose, a court heard today.

But after promising the eastern Europeans wages, accommodation and good working conditions, they were put to work in harsh conditions, often beaten or threatened, and housed in "inhuman" conditions, Northampton Crown Court heard.

Gurdip Singh Somal, his wife Manjinder Kaur Somal, Jujhar Singh, Santokh Singh Nizzar, Varinder Singh, Fateh Singh Bal and Ania Jemiola all deny conspiracy to exploit migrant workers.

They deny two charges between December 2004 and November 2008 - Gurdip and Manjinder Somal, Jujhar Singh and Jemiola deny conspiracy to exploit by arranging arrival in the UK.

And all defendants except Jemiola deny conspiracy to exploit by arranging travel within the UK.

Prosecutor Jonathan Kirk QC told the court Gurdip Somal ran the multi-million pound business providing agricultural labour to farmers, recruiting workers to harvest leeks in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Cambridgeshire.

He said: "The case against them is that they cruelly mistreated and criminally exploited these migrant workers.

"The workers came here on the promise of good wages, conditions and accommodation.

"When they arrived they were put to work in the leek fields, where many were intimidated, threatened and beaten."

He said the gang used a harvesting machine to collect the leeks and workers who could not keep up were knocked to the ground.

They were not given protective equipment so when the machine hit them, they were cut to the bone by the knives they used to trim the leeks, and suffered skin infections from acid in the leeks.

Mr Kirk said they were taken to the fields in overcrowded and dangerous minibuses then made to work "inhumane hours, without breaks, through the winter rains; soaked to the skin and late into the darkness".

The gang then cheated them by paying them less than promised and deducting money from their wages, the court heard.

Despite promises of decent accommodation, they were crammed into housing that was "dirty, unsafe and in some cases unfit for human habitation", Mr Kirk said.

He said in one example more than 20 workers were crammed into a three-bedroom terraced house with a single toilet that did not work.

Mr Kirk said in just four years, the Somals raked in more than £10 million from the farming companies that owned the leek fields, adding: "Ultimately that £10 million came from Tesco and Waitrose, where the leeks were sold."

The court heard that the workers described themselves as being treated like "animals" or "slaves".

But Mr Kirk said that, although some of the them could leave, many felt unable to do so and feared being "cut adrift and left homeless in a foreign country", often without their passports, which the gang had taken.

The defendants were arrested by police and other authorities in November 2008 as part of Operation Ruby, the biggest operation of its kind targeting the exploitation of migrant workers.

Mr Kirk said: "In bringing this case, the prosecution fully acknowledges that farming labour is not easy, it's not easy work. It is physical and often tough.

"We're not suggesting that migrant workers should have been given cushy jobs or put up in luxury accommodation.

"What we say is that any human being is entitled to a basic minimum, particularly in the UK.

"We are saying that the workers' treatment at the hands of these defendants fell far below that standard.

"They came here to work and to work hard. They were vulnerable and they were exploited in a way that these defendants could never have got away with if these workers had been British."

Mr Kirk said Gurdip Somal, 52, was the boss, while his wife, Manjinder, 46, was the "legitimate face of the exploitation gang".

She was the registered proprietor of the main business identity the Somals used - A14 Vehicle Hire - and also obtained the Gangmaster's Licence needed to provide agricultural labour.

Gurdip Somal's nephew, Jujhar Singh, 27, was his "right-hand man", Mr Kirk said, while Nizzar operated the leek harvester.

Polish national Jemiola started as a worker and was then promoted to become a supervisor and recruiter of workers from Poland, while Bal and Singh were drivers and field supervisors.

He said the leek fields were owned by companies rather than individual farmers, and the companies used recruitment agencies to bring workers to the fields.

The defendants set up the recruitment agency, A14 Vehicle Hire, allegedly exploiting workers from countries in Eastern Europe, including Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Romania.

Mr Kirk said the harvester used to collect the leeks was often used to force workers to work harder and faster, herding them forward at a "relentless pace".

As they were hit by it, they often cut themselves with the sharp knives used to trim the leeks - the court heard that one Slovakian man cut himself to the bone in his arm while another witness nearly severed his finger.

Workers said the machine would lurch forward unexpectedly while the driver would laugh and shout "faster, faster", and if people screamed in pain they were told to hurry up or they would be sacked if they fell behind.

Mr Kirk said that, although it could be suggested the lurching might have been accidental or "ineptitude", the workers were sure it was deliberate.

The court heard that, as well as harsh conditions and beatings described by some, they worked 12- or 13-hour days, with four- or five-hour journeys to and from the fields.

Some suffered painful white blisters or ulcers caused by the acid from the leeks after working without any protection.

"The defendants plainly knew that their treatment of the workers was unacceptable," Mr Kirk said.

"There were a few visits to the field by representatives of the Tesco supermarket chain," he told the court.

"Regrettably, these visits were infrequent and by prior arrangement."

He said that, on these occasions, conditions in the fields changed, with workers given clean T-shirts and the pace of the machine slowed.

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