An illegal gangmaster who kept Romanian workers in an unheated outbuilding in Northern Ireland and forced them to scavenge for out-of-date food from supermarket bins has been fined £500.
Gangmaster Licensing Authority Chief Executive Paul Broadbent said he was both “shocked and appalled” by the sentence imposed on 35-year-old Gheorghe Ionas, by Craigavon Magistrates Court, and would now seek to appeal.
Mr Broadbent said: “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.
“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.”
Greg Peacock, prosecuting, told the court that officers from the GLA and the police searched the home of Ionas in Albert Avenue, Lurgan, early on the morning of October 2 last year.
Behind the terraced house they discovered three Romanian men sleeping in an outbuilding. The building was made out of bare breeze blocks and had no heating and limited electricity.
After the workers were removed from the building it was inspected by a Craigavon Borough Council environmental health officer and was declared “unfit for human habitation”.
The court heard how the men were employed full-time as apple pickers, working in orchards in County Armagh.
They were paid £100 per week, which is below the National Minimum Wage.
Officers on the operation were told that as many as five men had been living in the outbuilding at one time.
Mr Peacock added that, although Ionas took money from the workers for food, transport and accommodation, the men were also forced to take out-of-date stock from the bins of local supermarkets.
Ionas pled guilty to a single charge of acting as a gangmaster without a licence.
The offence carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.
As well as the £500 fine, he was ordered to pay £46 towards court costs and a £15 offender’s levy.
Such was the level of exploitation that three men were classified as potential victims of trafficking and given access to specialist support services (the National Referral Mechanism).
They have since returned to Romania.
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