Gangmasters Licensing Authority to appeal 'shocking' sentence
The body that licenses the supply of temporary labour has said it will appeal the sentence given to an illegal gangmaster (labour provider) who kept fellow Romanian workers in inhumane conditions in County Armagh.
Gheorge Ionas pleaded guilty to operating as a gangmaster without a licence at Craigavon Magistrates' Court.
He received a £500 fine.
The Gangmasters Licensing Authority described the punishment as "shocking".
The maximum sentence under the Gangmasters Licensing Act for working as an illegal gangmaster is 10 years in jail.
The court heard that officers from the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) and police searched Mr Ionas' home in Albert Avenue in Lurgan, County Armagh, on 2 October 2013.
They discovered three Romanian men sleeping in an outbuilding - the building was made out of bare breeze blocks and had no heating and only limited electricity.
It was later declared "unfit for human habitation" by environmental health officers at Craigavon Borough Council.
The court heard the men were employed as apple pickers, working in orchards in County Armagh, and were paid £100 per week, which was below the minimum wage.
Officers working on the case were told that at one stage, up to five men had been living in the outbuilding.
It was alleged in a police interview that at least one of the men had foraged in supermarket bins for out of date food.
Mr Ionas took money from the men for food, transport and accommodation before he paid them.
GLA chief executive Paul Broadbent said he was "appalled" by the leniency of the sentence and would be seeking an appeal.
"I simply fail to see how this punishment fits the crime and is in any way a deterrent for someone who preyed on vulnerable men," he said.
"I will be writing to the public prosecutor for Northern Ireland to seek leave to appeal this derisory sentence and express my utter dismay that slavery - for that is what this was - is seemingly not recognised in the court where this defendant appeared.
"At a time when the proposed Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill in Northern Ireland stipulates a minimum sentence of two years for 'trafficking' offences, and the very offence that was admitted under the Gangmasters Licensing Act carries a maximum of 10 years, this case must surely be reconsidered."
Human rights groups also criticised the sentence.
Dr Aidan McQuade from the Anti-Slavery League said: "I really don't see what sort of message that sends out to the rest of the world or what sort of attitude that displays towards the people who were kept in such appalling circumstances," he said.
"It is difficult to see what must have been going through his mind to presume that such a discount on the penalty would have been acceptable.
As well as the £500 fine, Mr Ionas was ordered to pay £46 towards court costs and a £15 offenders levy.
The Gangmaster Licensing Authority licenses companies that supply temporary labour in the fields of agriculture, horticulture and shellfish gathering as well as associated processing and packaging.
It was formed in 2005 in the wake of the Morecambe Bay cockle picking disaster when 23 Chinese workers drowned while working on the sand.
Under the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act (2004), it is illegal both to operate as, or employ the services of an unlicensed gangmaster.
The GLA said 960 gangmaster licences are currently issued in the UK - 21 of them are in Northern Ireland.