Family jailed over forced labour

Wed, Dec 19, 2012, 00:00

Five members of an Irish Traveller family who led a luxurious lifestyle at the expense of vulnerable men whom they forced to work for a pittance have been jailed today by a judge at Bristol Crown Court.

William Connors (52) was jailed for six and a half years and his wife Mary (48) received a sentence of two years and three months.

The couple’s son, John (29), was jailed for four years. Their other son, James (20), got three years' detention in a young offender institution.

Son-in-law Miles Connors (24), received a three-year prison sentence.

They were all convicted last week at Bristol Crown Court of conspiracy to require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour between April 2010 and March 2011 following a three-month trial.

They had also faced a second charge of conspiracy to hold another person in servitude, but Judge Michael Longman ordered the jury to find the defendants not guilty of that offence.

Passing sentence today, Judge Longman said: “What each of the workers had in common was that, when they first met the Connors, they were unemployed and addicted to alcohol.

“Most were homeless, relying on hostels or night shelters at best for their accommodation. Some suffered from mental health difficulties. All were vulnerable in some way and it was this vulnerability which was exploited by the defendants for their own commercial gain.”

The prosecution was brought under Section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.

The Connors enjoyed top-of-the-range cars and expensive holidays. To help finance their lifestyle,  the family picked up men - often homeless drifters or addicts - to work for them as labourers.

The victims lived in squalid caravans on halting sites as they moved around the country working in the Connors’ paving and patio businesses. Some were ordered to perform humiliating tasks such as emptying the buckets used as toilets by their bosses. Their work was monotonous, arduous and unrelenting, and they were controlled through discipline and violence.

Some of the men - called “dossers” by the Connors family members - had worked for the family for nearly two decades. Many were beaten, hit with broom handles, belts, a rake and shovel, and punched and kicked by the offenders.

The men were paid as little as £5 for a day’s hard labour on jobs which would earn the family several thousands pounds. They were given so little food that they resorted to scavenging from rubbish bins at supermarkets.

In contrast, the Connors lived in large caravans fitted with luxury kitchens and flat-screen televisions.

William and Mary, known as Billy and Brida, enjoyed exotic holidays, including to Dubai and a 10-day cruise around the Caribbean on the Cunard flagship liner Queen Mary 2. The family also spent the spoils of their enterprise on breaks to Tenerife and Cancun in Mexico.

As well as holidays, they drove cars including a silver A-Class Mercedes saloon, a Rolls-Royce, a red Mini convertible, a Toyota Hilux pick-up, a Ford Ranger and a Mercedes van, and had built up a mounting property portfolio potentially now worth millions of pounds. Their bank accounts contained more than £500,000.

Also working on the family business were sons John and James - known as Johnny and Jimmy - and Miles Connors, known as Miley, who is married to William and Mary’s daughter Bridget.

Police began investigating the Connors family following the discovery of the body of worker Christopher Nicholls (40), in 2008.

The introduction of the Coroners and Justice Act in April 2010 created offences of conspiracy to hold another person in servitude and conspiracy to require a person to carry out forced or compulsory labour.

The Connors were placed under covert surveillance in August 2010 and police recorded evidence of the men being assaulted.

The enterprise came to an end when police raided sites in Staverton, Enderby in Leicestershire and Mansfield in Nottinghamshire on March 22nd, 2011.

The Connors family maintained the men were “free agents” able to come and go as they pleased, and William and Mary suggested they acted as “good Samaritans” by providing them with food, work and accommodation.

During his sentencing, the judge said the workers showed outstanding qualities of resilience, basic decency and loyalty.

“The difference between the lifestyles of the defendants and the workers was marked: the work done reaped rich rewards for the Connors family, who lived luxuriously in caravans or houses; the workers whose labour helped to generate these rewards were paid, when they were paid at all, a pittance.

“Many of the workers were promised, when they were picked up, a regular income. What was offered largely failed to materialise and payment was irregular and meagre, covering only the most basic necessities.

“The accommodation provided was, for the most part, sub-standard. Although some workers spoke of their bosses as friends, the status of the workers as compared to the bosses was so inferior as to render the relationship between them unrecognisable as friendship by normal standards.

“Workers spoke of violence being meted out by certain bosses against workers on different occasions but the evidence did not suggest that violence was regularly used against workers and rarely during the indictment period. I am, however, satisfied, that such violence as there was not only helped to define and emphasise the unequal relationship between bosses and workers but also served to ensure that the workers knew there was a line that was not to be crossed.”

Judge Longman said some of the workers considered themselves “better off” working for the Connors than the alternative of being on the streets.

“But the indignity of unemployment was replaced by the degradation that accompanied their inferior status and the freedoms and independence that usually accompany employment were largely absent,” he said.

“I am satisfied that the efforts made by members of the Connors family to wean the workers off the alcohol to which they had become addicted were not altruistic — but were rather to benefit themselves so that those recruited could become a source of cheap labour for them.”