April 23 2014 Latest news:
Peter Walsh and Christine Cunningham
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
A man who ran a Norwich garage has been jailed for seven years after admitting acting as an illegal gangmaster who a judge described acted as “the principal person in the economic exploitation of migrant workers”.
The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has welcomed a landmark court decision that saw Audrius Morkunas jailed for acting as an unlicensed gangmaster.
Morkunas had built up an organised crime group and was responsible for placing a large number of vulnerable people from Lithuania into substandard accommodation that he controlled and sub-let to them.
Paul Broadbent, chief executive of the GLA, said: “I am delighted that today we have seen a sentence imposed that fits the crime.
“This man exploited vulnerable workers to despicable levels over a prolonged period.
“That exploitation was deliberate and based on fear, intimidation and greed.”
He added: “I hope this result heralds a new approach from the courts to impose stiffer sentences and sends out a clear warning to illegal gangmasters who flout the law that they will be relentlessly pursued, prosecuted and spend significant periods of time in jail.”
Audrius Morkunas, 40, operated around Norfolk using a garage he ran in Duke Street, in Norwich, as a base. He placed a large number of Lithuanian workers into substandard accommodation, charged them for finding work and for rent.
When police raided the garage run by Morkunas they seized a number of paper and documents including the passports and ID cards of some of his workers.
He appeared for sentence yesterday after admitting acting as a gang master without a licence, which is the first time an illegal gang master has been brought to justice under new regulations.
Morkunas, of Grove Road, Melton Constable, also admitted possession of an article for use in fraud, and money laundering.
Detective Constable Neil Starland, from Norfolk Constabulary’s Economic Crime Unit, said he hoped the sentence would send out a strong message to others involved in this type of illegal activity.
He said: “This was a complex and sophisticated operation. Morkunas had put a great deal of groundwork into setting up this far-reaching organised crime group.
“He is a violent and controlling individual and it’s pleasing to see him convicted.
“The following close liaison, co-operation and team work that took place between Norfolk Constabulary and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) in terms of gathering evidence was critical in securing this conviction and sentence.
“Consequently, such productive information-sharing between the two agencies has prompted his organised crime group to be taken to pieces and brings an end to many months of misery to those workers he exploited and controlled.
“After a lengthy investigation it is pleasing to see him convicted – we, along with our partner agencies, always look to create a hostile environment for those engaging in this type of criminal activity.”
In addition he was also found guilty, following a trial, of causing actual bodily harm and possession of an offensive weapon.
It followed an incident on May 7 2012 where he and three “henchmen”, some of whom had weapons, carried out a “targeted attack” on an economic migrant who was not paying his way and getting into debt.
The court heard that Morkunas exploited a “significant” number of people with at least 250 people involved amounting to an income of at least £100,000.
Sentencing Morkunas to a total of seven years in prison Judge Nicholas Coleman said: “The defendant was the principle person in the economic exploitation of migrant workers. The prosecution case is that this was a commercially exploitative operation which went on for some years. I accept that proposition. If the workers did not comply he would use force. When workers come to this country to better themselves they do not expect to find themselves exploited, still less by their fellow countrymen. Many workers were trapped, slaves in an alien environment.”
Norwich Crown Court had previously heard that Morkunas put Lithuanian workers into jobs in agriculture and at food processing factories around Norfolk and had a number of workers living in rented accommodation, in Melton Constable.
Morkunas claimed that he only helped fellow countrymen to get established by helping them get work and accommodation and had not acted as an illegal gang master.
Roger Harrison, for Morkunas, said that he was a man of good character and said there was “no evidence that any of these migrants suffered any harm”.
Appearing alongside Morkunas yesterday was co-defendant Kestutis Petravicius, 37, of Darrell Place, Norwich, who had previously pleaded guilty to assault occasioning actual bodily harm following the incident at Cranwich Food Factory in May 2012.
John Lamb, representing Petravicius, pleaded guilty and played a “subordinate”role.
Eridas Daugintis, 37, from Wortham Close in the Clover Hill area of Norwich, had also previously pleaded guilty to assault but did not appear and was dealt with in his absence.
Jonathan Goodman, representing, said he was “not the driving force” in this incident.
Sentencing Petravicius to eight months in custody and Daugintis to six months in custody respectively, Judge Coleman said the events at the factory were a “manifestation of Morkunas’s modus operandi, the use of force to enforce a debt” adding it was “organised thuggery”.
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