Is migrant exploitation still rife?

Migrant workers picking leeks
Image caption The BBC investigation found migrants from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia were living on less than £1 a week

A widespread network exploiting migrant workers in the Fens of eastern England was uncovered by BBC News in 2013. Fifteen months on and two illegal gangmasters have been convicted, but are the workers any better off now?

Thousands of people from eastern Europe looking for work and a better life have come to Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire over the past decade.

But for many that dream turns out to be far from the reality they are faced with.

Last year we found many were living in squalid conditions and being paid less than the minimum wage for working in the fields.

For some migrants who have made their home in a makeshift camp along the A47 in Wisbech, that nightmare continues to this day.

Just metres from the busy road, many huddle in tarpaulin tents that barely protect them from the elements.

Image caption One man at the camp told the BBC he received 3p in his last pay packet

They arrived on the promise of full-time work, but gangmasters abused their trust, reduced their hours and pushed them into debt. Now they've been evicted from their homes.

Three months ago one squatter died while crossing the busy main road into the camp.

One man, who did not want to give us his name, said: "They promised me a permanent job. When I got paid I had a little envelope with a payslip. It happened there was just 3p because I was in debt.

"There was no contract, and how can you prove to the police that you live in the house with no contract? These people, they have discarded me."

Image caption Some migrant workers are currently living in this makeshift camp in Wisbech by the A47
Image caption People are sleeping in tarpaulin tents

The stories of these men are similar to those uncovered by the BBC investigation last year, which revealed workers were being exploited by their own countrymen.

When we first started investigating, one name seemed to crop up everywhere in Wisbech - Ivars Mezals.

Mezals was the man who had befriended the new arrivals - finding them somewhere to stay, collecting the rent, and even driving them to work.

And while some counted the baby-faced Latvian as their friend, many quickly found out they were pawns in a money-making scheme.

We confronted Mezals at one of his favourite haunts, where he repaired cars just outside the Cambridgeshire town.

He denied being an illegal gangmaster, but said: "Maybe police have evidence, but you don't."

It proved a partially correct prediction - the police were building a case against Mezals and a man known as his boss, Juris Valujevs.

Image caption Ivar Mezals told the BBC he did not "exploit anything"

Two weeks after the BBC exposed Mezals, Valujevs and a licensed gangmaster, Martyn Slender, the police sprang their long-planned raid. All three were among those arrested.

Mezals was apparently drunk when the police bashed down his door - the usual confident swagger replaced by tears as he was bundled into the police wagon barefooted.

So two rogues have been convicted. The licensed gangmaster, Slender, had pleaded guilty to contravening regulations and was given a suspended sentence at a hearing in March. He also lost his gangmaster licence.

There are still many overcrowded rentals in the town, although one of the homes where Mezals operated and collected the rents has been redecorated and re-let.

But have the convictions of the gangmasters made any difference?

Image caption When the BBC visited a house last year, the workers there said they were happy with their damp-filled accommodation, which compared favourably with Latvian conditions

New anti-slavery laws are on the way in 2015. The town's Conservative MP, Steve Barclay, says this will hit rogue gangmasters in the pocket.

"There are more people being trafficked for labour exploitation than for sexual exploitation and this is a crime driven by profits," he said.

In the most recent population census, only 2,000 eastern Europeans were registered in the Wisbech area. But the police, local authorities and charities believe the true figure is nearer 10,000. So central government funding does not match the need.

Since the raids last October, Operation Pheasant has continued in Wisbech.

This year 20 migrants have been rescued from trafficking, 51 have been helped to return home and 182 people have been rescued from inhumane living conditions. Violent crime is down by one-third.

The Ferry Project homeless charity has just recruited an eastern European outreach worker. In the past year and a half it has helped 300 migrants.

But Ferry Project director Keith Smith believes there is more work to be done.

"There are many gangmasters out there that are doing an excellent job and providing employment for all sorts of people, but since that vacuum not only have good gangmasters come in but still some exploitative ones come in, so therefore the problem is ongoing," he said.

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