You know about ‘Blood Diamonds’, now PETER FROST investigates blood Brussels sprouts.
They always look so appetizing, and so Christmassy, those stalks of fresh Brussels sprouts dominating the supermarket vegetable shelves.
You can picture them being harvested in the snow flecked fields of Fenland by apple cheeked happy farm workers humming carols as they pick the sprouts on a crisp frosty morning.
Why, it could be a Christmas card image or a shot from the latest BBC documentary recreating the halcyon days of historic farming.
In fact of course, the reality is not quite so wholesome. Modern day vegetable growing and picking might be Victorian but not in a pretty sepia Christmas card way.
The more savage truth was revealed in a court case last week in Norwich that saw Audrius Morkunas jailed for seven years for acting as an unlicensed gangmaster.
Morkunas had organised gangs of Lithuanian as vegetable pickers, vegetable and chicken food processors in the food industry. He had charged the workers £400 to get the jobs and also rented them crowded and unsuitable accommodation at exorbitant rents.
This gangmaster it seems was also a gangster who had built up an organised crime group and made his money placing a large number of vulnerable people from Lithuania into substandard accommodation.
Morkunas exploited vulnerable workers to despicable levels over a prolonged period. His actions were deliberate and used fear, intimidation and greed. As so often the immigrant workers had no trade union to defend their rights. Many were virtually slave labour.
The gangmaster was also found guilty of causing actual bodily harm and possession of an offensive weapon. He and three henchmen, some of whom had weapons, carried out a targeted attack on one man entrapped in his criminal web.
The victim had dared to refuse the money demanded for finding work and accommodation.
The court heard that Morkunas exploited at least 250 people and his income had amounted to at least £100,000.
Audrius Morkunas, 40, operated around Norfolk using a garage he ran in Duke Street, in Norwich, as a base.
When police raided the garage they seized a number of paper and documents including the passports and ID cards of some of his workers.
Morkunas, of Grove Road, Melton Constable, also admitted possession of an article for use in fraud, and money laundering.
Detective Constable Neil Starland, from Norfolk Constabulary’s Economic Crime Unit, said he hoped the sentence would send out a strong message to others involved in this type of illegal activity.
He said: “This was a complex and sophisticated operation. Morkunas had put a great deal of groundwork into setting up this far-reaching organised crime group.
“He is a violent and controlling individual and it’s pleasing to see him convicted.
“The court heard that if the workers did not comply he would use force. When workers come to this country to better themselves they do not expect to find themselves exploited, still less by their fellow countrymen. Many workers were trapped, slaves in an alien environment.”
Morkunas put Lithuanian workers into jobs in agriculture and at food processing factories around Norfolk and had a number of workers living in rented accommodation, in Melton Constable.
Appearing alongside Morkunas was co-defendant Kestutis Petravicius, 37, also of Norwich. He had previously pleaded guilty to assault occasioning actual bodily harm following an incident at Cranwich Food Factory in May 2012.
Petravicius, pleaded guilty. Eridas Daugintis had also previously pleaded guilty to assault but did not appear and was dealt with in his absence.
Petravicius received eight months in custody and Daugintis six months. Judge Coleman described the events at the factory as a manifestation of Morkunas’s modus operandi, the use of force to enforce a debt was organised thuggery said the Judge.
The case is the first in which an illegal gangmaster has been brought to justice under new regulations.