Prime Minister hits out at Norfolk gangmaster’s ‘inhumane’ crimes
PUBLISHED: 07:16 10 April 2014 | UPDATED: 08:35 10 April 2014
David Cameron launched a scathing attack on a Norfolk gangmaster as the government unveiled new measures designed to root out exploitation.
It was a “complex and sophisticated” operation which uncovered the exploitation of migrant workers by Lithuanian national Audrius Morkunas, and eventually saw him jailed.
The Norfolk-based criminal built up an organised crime group responsible for placing a large number of Lithuanians into substandard accommodation that he controlled and sub-let to them.
He charged accommodation at £50 per person per week and an extra £400 for finding them work in industries such as agriculture and chicken processing.
They were also billed £5 per day per person for transport.
The violent man controlled the bank accounts opened by workers, as well as taking control of many of ID documents such as passports and driving licenses.
The workers invariably built up a ‘debt’ to Morkunas that he used to exploit and control them.
It was through a joint investigation between Norfolk police and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority that Morkunas was eventually brought to justice.
The prime minister labelled as “inhumane, deplorable and unacceptable” the crimes of Lithuanian national Audrius Morkunas, who was the first gangmaster to be jailed in the UK under a special law.
Saying Morkunas had “no place in Britain”, Mr Cameron claimed more offenders would be brought to justice after it had moved the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority into the Home Office.
And he also promised to give British workers a “fair crack at the whip”, with plans to force job agencies to advertise vacancies in English.
The timing of the announcement will be seen as a direct challenge to the UK Independence Party, which is raising concerns about immigration in its bid to win seats in the European Elections next month.
Mr Cameron said: “We’ve all heard the terrible stories: vulnerable people being trafficked to Britain, forced to live in squalid conditions, made to work for little or no money – all the while at the complete mercy of illegal gangmasters.
“But these aren’t just stories; they’re a reality in Britain today – including right here in East Anglia.”
He said that while the GLA, which was set up a decade ago after 23 Chinese cockle pickers died in Morecambe Bay, had successfully prosecuted 69 people and revoked 40 licences in East Anglia, he wanted to go “further and faster” to protect the vulnerable and to root out the perpetrators.
The GLA move will see it work alongside the National Crime Agency - a measure the government claims will help ensure offenders face tougher enforcement action and stronger sanctions.
The shadow home secretary will also say today that serious exploitation of migrant labour in a bid to undercut wages would be made a criminal offence under a Labour government.
In a speech outlining Labour’s approach to immigration, Yvette Cooper will set out plans to consult on revising the existing criminal offence of forced labour so more exploiters of migrants are caught and prosecuted.
And Ms Cooper will attack the Government for having a “worst of all worlds” approach to immigration, in which illegal immigration is getting worse while businesses are unable to access the skills they need.
She will say: “We do not want to live in a society dependent on the exploitation of cheap migrant labour - it increases low skilled immigration, increases unfairness and resentment.
Labour Euro MP Richard Howitt dismissed Mr Cameron’s announcement, claiming the GLA was in fact being starved of resources.
Its remit changed last year meaning it no longer had powers to regulate the forestry sector, land agents, volunteers working for charities, some apprenticeship training agencies, and cleaning contractors operating in the food processing industry.
Mr Howitt said: “It needs more resources and to be far more proactive in chasing down the gangmasters who exploit and undercut wages.”
He also claimed that cuts to local authority health officers further impeded inspections of multi-occupation housing.
“I’m less interested in the level of fines and punishments than the appalling level of pay for workers,” he added.
Norfolk Police said that it was important to note that it only experienced only a small number of trafficking cases, but welcomed the closer work between the National Crime Agency and GLA.
A spokesman said: “Similar to other forces, human trafficking is one of many offences offenders involved may be charged with. Others include serious sexual offences, offences involving violence, fraud and money laundering. The reasons for this are varied and complex and in many cases to protect victims and their families.
“It is vital that victims of human trafficking, who are often extremely vulnerable, have confidence to report offences to us and we would ask them to contact us or any other trusted third party directly.”
North-East Cambridgeshire MP Steve Barclay said the move would make it much easier for the police to liase with the GLA, but said the government should go further and make it easier for civil fines to be imposed.
UKIP Eastern MEP candidate Patrick O’Flynn said: “Any extra effort made by the Government to combat illegal working is welcome. But nothing can disguise the fact that the coalition has almost no control over Britain’s borders.
“So long as we have a complete open door to more than two dozen neighbouring countries because of our membership of the European Union nobody should expect uncontrolled immigration to cease.”
Mr Cameron has also launched a consultation on new regulations which will make sure these agencies advertise vacancies in English, in the UK.
“That will give workers in Britain a fair crack of the whip when it comes to getting a job themselves, meaning more economic security for people across our country,” he said.
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