‘Gangmaster’ kept migrant workers ‘like rats’ in Co Armagh

Ioan Lacatus jailed for running ‘exploitive regime,’ subjecting victims to ‘degrading treatment’

 

A Romanian gangmaster known as ‘The Minister’ who pocketed over £15,000 of wages from a dozen starved migrant workers was on Friday jailed for a total of two and a half years.

Passing sentencing at Craigavon Crown Court in Co Armagh, Judge Patrick Lynch QC told Ioan Lacatus that he was a “manipulative individual” who used his “intimidating physical presence” and ran what he described as an “exploitive regime” on the workers.

The judge said one of the Romanian victims had described their accommodation as “living like rats” with limited showering and washing facilities with 15 people housed under the roof of a three bedroomed rented home.

They were forced to “sleep on mattresses on the floor of every room” in the house in Portadown and were told not talk to other workers or leave the house.

He added that Lacatus, who he described as a “dishonest individual” had effectively “stolen” around £1,000 per week from the agricultural workers who had come from a rural part of Romania with promises of “food, accommodation and €400 a week for a 40 hour week”.

Judge Lynch QC told the court that on arrival in Dublin, the migrants had their passports taken, were required to sign transfer forms for wages to be paid into the slave master’s bank account and sign a waver to the European directive on weekly working hours.

‘Degrading treatment’

Lacatus (33), of Hanover Street, Portadown, pleaded guilty in court to conspiracy to traffic within the United Kingdom, five counts of trafficking people into the UK for exploitation, acting as an unlicensed gangmaster, and converting criminal property.

Saying that there was an “element of sophistication” in his offencing, the judge told him: “You could have made a good living by treating your victims to a degree of decency” but instead “subjected them to humiliating and degrading treatment”.

Judge Lynch QC said for the offence of operating as unlicensed gangmaster he would impose a sentence of 30 months, with 15 months to be spent in custody and a further 15 months on supervised licence following his release from custody. He imposed a two year concurrent sentence on the remainng offences.

And because he was in breach of a suspended sentence imposed in 2014 for fraud by false representation, Judge Lynch QC said Lacatus would spend a further 15 months in custody, giving him a global prison sentence of 30 months.

His wife Cristina Nicoleta Covaci (31), also of Hanover Street, pleaded guilty to entering into an arrangement to acquire criminal property and converting criminal property, namely the wages of migrant workers and lodging them into her bank account between April and October 2014.

Judge Lynch QC said that in her case the “custody threshold has been passed” given the “large sums of money that passed through your bank account by virtue of the illegal enterprise of your partner”.

But he said following the submissions of her defence QC Martin O’Rourke “I am going to suspend your sentence and you will not have spend any further time in custody”.

She received a 12 month sentence suspended for two years but the judge warned her that if she committed any further offences in the next two years “you will be brought back to this court and you will be required to serve that 12 month sentence imposed”

Her brother, Samuil Covaci, (25), of Tandragee Road, Portadown, pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to traffick within the UK to “exploit migrant workers” between May 1st and August 15th, 2014.

The judge said he played a “limited role in the illegal enterprise” and that by “virtue of the fact that you have spent 15-16 months in custody it would not be appropriate to impose a custodial sentence” and handed him a two year year conditional discharge.

Escape

Prosecution counsel David McDowell QC had earlier told that the court that on August 13th, 2014, four Romanian nationals arrived at Portadown police station and complained of conditions they were living in at 241 Charles Street in the town.

Detailing that there were other migrants workers in the house, the four told police that they worked for a gangmaster they called ‘The Minister’, Ioan Lacatus.

“Police arranged for transport for a further two females and three males who were in the house and they were told to go to a nearby shop where an unmarked police minibus would be waiting for them.

“All five came out of the house and ran towards the minibus and were taken to safety. one of them was suffering from stomach pains and a police doctor was requested. Police also went out to get them food to eat.”

The judge heard that police later carried out a search of the Hanover Street property and rescued a further three men.

Lacatus was arrested two days later on August 15th. The same day police spoke to Samuil Covaci initially “as a witness but then arrested him as a defendant”.

Cristina Covaci was arrested in october and replied: “What did you come to arrest me for? Are you joking? Are you serious?”

Mr McDowell QC said the victims had come from a poor rural part of Romania near the border with Hungary and were “promised €400 (Euros) per week” to work eight hours a day, along with a place to stay and food.

He told the court that Samuil Covaci and his two brothers also lived at the house in Hanover Street.

“In total, there were 15 people living at the three bedroomed house in Hanover Street. All rooms in the property were used for sleeping.

“There was one toilet and one shower between them. They received limited rations of food.”

Through a local recruitment agency, they were promised the minimum wage of £6.31 for over 18s but McDowell QC said that in fact they were working 12 hours a day in Portadown and Downpatrick.

One of the workers, the court heard, had worked 68 hours per week. Another victim had worked 18 days in a row without a break.

Mr McDowell said that the wages of the workers was diverted into the bank accounts of Ioan Lacatus and his wife Cristina Covaci.

Sometimes the workers were taken by Lacatus to local money shops in Portadown to cash their cheques and the money was handed over to him.

But Lacatus’s brother-in-law Samuil Covaci was treated differently from the exploited workers and “received the full amount of money he was due. He was plainly trusted by his brother-in-law”.

The court also heard that from the day they arrived in Portadown, the migrant workers were told “not to be seen outside the house, not to go into the courtyard, they were not allowed to go to the shop and they were not to talk to their fellow workers”.

The prosecutor also told of the lack of food provided to the dozen trafficked migrants, saying Lacatus would turn up with “two loaves of bread and a cold Salami”.

On another occassion, Lacatus, a former Domino’s delivery driver, arrived at the house with “three pizza’s to feed 15-16 people”.

The judge heard that when they complained about the lack of warm food, Lacatus told them: “You can eat stones.”

“In total,” said Mr McDowell Qc, “12 migrant workers were exploited. One person got his first week’s wages and in the remaining six weeks he received none of it. All the money was taken by Ioan Lacatus and he controlled it.”

M and M News