Lithuanian gangmasters jailed in modern slavery and trafficking …
Linus Ratautas (above) and Konstantin Sasmurin were each sentenced to three and half years in prison. Photograph: Norfolk police
Two Lithuanian men have been found guilty of trafficking two of their fellow countrymen, taking all but 20 of the wages they received over several months for working in food factories that supply many leading supermarkets. The victims, Edvinas and Edgarus Subatkis, were found still wearing the same clothes in which they had made their journey to Britain. They had also lost weight dramatically since leaving Lithuania about 15kg (2st 4lbs) in the case of Edvinas. Fellow Lithuanians Linus Ratautas and Konstantin Sasmurin introduced the twins to recruitment firms, where Ratautas helped them fill in registration forms with his own bank details.
Payment for the work the Subatkis brothers undertook was deposited directly into Ratautas s bank account. The twins were given just 20 over the four-month period they worked and a small amount of food each week: bread, margarine, onions, ketchup, and occasionally a little mince. They were found working in a chicken factory owned by the largest poultry processor in the UK, the 2 Sisters Food Group, whose factory in Flixton, Suffolk, supplies meat to many leading British supermarkets, including Sainsbury s, Tesco, Asda and M&S.
The twins said their convicted gangmasters had repeatedly threatened them with violence. If they were to tell anyone about their conditions or try to get out of their agreement , Edvinas and Edgarus were warned they would have their bones broken, be dug under or fed to the crabs , which the brothers understood to mean that they would be killed. They were hungry, frightened and very reluctant to speak.
After several weeks, however, the Flixton factory s human resources manager was alerted to a problem and interviewed the brothers. The manager, in turn, reported his concerns immediately to the Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA). In a ruling at King s Lynn crown court earlier this month, Ratautas and Sasmurin were each sentenced to three and a half years in prison for trafficking and money laundering. They were also given the first ever slavery and trafficking prevention orders (STPOs) relating to labour exploitation in the UK.
Sentencing the pair, the recorder Mark Dennis highlighted the harm done by their grossly degrading and cruel behaviour .
Once lured here and met by you, [the brothers] were in reality controlled by you physically and financially. You pocketed their earnings for your own financial gain and greed, picking on vulnerable persons who were not in a position to resist or extricate themselves from your grasp, he said.
I start on the basis for forced labour but there are obvious elements of slavery and servitude which cannot be ignored.
The Subatkis twins were used as forced labour and their experience is typical of a growing pattern of exploitation in the UK made possible by a supply chain that relies of layers of sub-contracting in which traffickers can thrive. The pair were employed at the 2 Sisters factory via the Staffline recruitment agency, as signed up by Ratautas. They were vulnerable young men, brought up partly in care in Lithuania. Edvinas has learning disabilities and Edgarus is of limited education. Both had been in trouble with the Lithuanian authorities in the past, so when offered work in the UK in 2013, the two men, then 26, saw the chance of a fresh start.
They were lured from Lithuania on the promise of good jobs, housing and all their essentials being provided. They agreed to pay an 800 fee for transport and employment, even though it is illegal to charge workers for finding work in the UK.
They were taken to 3 Crittens Road, in Great Yarmouth, a damp, mouldy and barely furnished three-storey house occupied by several other Lithuanians, where they shared a single mattress in a room with two other men. When they asked for the things they had been promised, they were told they had to pay off their 800 debt first.
At first they were put to work at Norbert Dentressangle s pea processing plant in Lowestoft, where they were signed up by the Jark recruitment firm on site. The plant supplies a frozen food giant whose products are sold as own-label frozen peas in many high street retailers. Their gangmasters later moved them to 2 Sisters in Flixton. Enforcement agencies say this was not an isolated incident. The conviction of Ratautas and Samuris came as the government admitted in a recent consultation paper that serious and organised crime gangs are infiltrating legitimate labour supply chains in several sectors in the UK.
This week the government introduced last-minute amendments to the immigration bill in the House of Lords committee stage to increase the powers, remit and parliamentary oversight of the GLA to tackle labour exploitation.The five-year STPOs prohibit the gangmasters from contacting the brothers, and will give them further protection if Ratautas and Sasmurin are released on licence after half their sentence, as is common. According to court papers, the two Jark and Staffline employees who registered the twins under the eye of the gangmasters have resigned. All the companies involved in the Subatkis case say they have strong anti-slavery policies in place and 2 Sisters acted quickly once the case was brought to their attention. The agencies and both the pea and chicken factories said they had rigorous procedures in place to guard against trafficking and exploitation and that these had been updated since the Subatkis case.
A spokesman for 2 Sisters told the Guardian: Once we were aware of the situation, we acted swiftly and decisively. The UK food industry depends on migrant labour, and our processes and systems lead the sector.
Unfortunately, even the best systems can occasionally be breached. We work closely with the GLA and are the biggest supplier partner in the Stronger Together anti-slavery initiative. XPO Logistics, which owns the Norbert Dentressangle pea factory said it took its responsibilities to its employees extremely seriously . Mark Simmons, the company s HR director, told the Guardian: Our pea processing facility at Oulton Broad employs around 150 people in peak season, around half of which are agency staff provided by Jark.
Jark has been licensed with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority on a continuous basis since July 2008. Our service level agreement with Jark covers all relevant legislation and our internal training procedures. The supermarkets told the Guardian they did not tolerate slavery or trafficking and said they had imposed audits and codes of practice on suppliers, and joined an industry-wide initiative to prevent it. Sainsbury s, Tesco, Asda and M&S said that organised crime could occasionally penetrate these systems despite their best efforts, a position echoed by the GLA.
The GLA s chief executive, Paul Broadbent, said: No matter how robust and secure company systems and structures are, organised criminality can and will infiltrate the legitimate supply chains in their endeavours to exploit workers.
I am satisfied that in this case, all that could have been done to keep criminals out of the supply chain was done. The companies involved worked with us closely and swiftly to resolve this serious issue.
The Subatkis twins meanwhile are adrift. They have been provided with emergency housing and are supported by charities in the UK through the national referral mechanism for victims of trafficking. They have no family to turn to and no work in the UK, but feel unable to go back to Lithuania for fear of reprisals from associates of Ratautas and Sasmurin.