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Husband and wife jailed for keeping men as 'slaves'

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Husband and wife James John Connors, 34, and Josie Connors, 31, were convicted of two counts each of servitude and forced labour at Luton Crown Court.

The facts of the case are shocking, almost seeming to belong to another era, and it has been described as the 'first quasi-slavery trial in Britain for more than 200 years'.  They were two of a number of members of the same family who were prosecuted over 13 weeks, four of the remaining Defendants awaiting re-trial next April, the jury having failed to reach verdicts on their charges, and one further Defendant who was cleared of all charges. 

Sentencing them at Luton Crown Court, Judge Michael Kay QC said: "The way they brutally manipulated and exploited men is pure evil."  

"Their disdain for the dignity of others is shocking. They were not Good Samaritans but violent, cold, hard exploiters."  

Josie Connors received a sentence of 4 years imprisonment and James Connors was jailed for a total of 11 years.  Both had denied all charges, and James was also convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, although the jury failed to reach a verdict against him on a charge of common assault.  This charge was later withdrawn by the prosecution.

The victims who gave evidence gave similar accounts of having been targeted by James Connors as vulnerable individuals, and forced to work in the UK and across Europe in his family's block paving business.  The victims were men who were alcoholics, drug users, homeless and destitute, all vulnerable in some way, and approached on the street, at soup kitchens or centres for the homeless, even at benefit offices and offered work, wages and accommodation.  The reality was 19 hour days working for little or no money, and being kept in squalid conditions with inadequate food, and without the basic provision of heating and hot water.  All of this next door to what were described as "a series of lavishly furnished chalets" on the same caravan site where they were living in Leighton Buzzard.

One newspaper reported that "One man described the site as a "concentration camp" where the labourers' heads were shaved and they were forced to work despite some suffering debilitating illnesses and broken bones. One man was recruited after being talked out of killing himself from jumping off a bridge at a service station and went on to work for the family for seven years".

The truth of their desperate situation finally came to light in September 2011 when police raided the site and found 23 'dirty and emaciated' men in conditions that beggared belief.  One of the men had been there for 15 years.

The case was seen as a test of new legislation designed to prevent and protect workers from exploitation.  Romana Cacchioli, from Anti-Slavery International, said: "That even physically fit British men can be forced to work under coercion and without pay shows the reality of anyone's susceptibility to modern day slavery."

Prosecutor, Frances Oldham, QC, said of the victims "They were controlled in such a way that in many cases they could not see it. They became conditioned to do what the defendants wanted. The reason for their exploitation was money. They may not in the strict sense have been slaves… but the prosecution say this; they were not free men."

It is sadly all too easy for us all to feel that it is not our personal responsibility to concern ourselves with these people, that it is 'someone else's problem'.  It is perhaps difficult to understand how people can submit to this treatment without taking steps to extricate themselves, or to contact the police or other authorities for help, but there is plenty of evidence from various legal cases over the years of the psychological influence that can be exercised over those who are already vulnerable, to make them feel as if there is nothing they can do to get away, even if they tried to.  Those who exercise that influence tend to deliberately target the vulnerable, the weak and those who have no ties to friends or family who are 'looking out' for them.  Those who are, unfortunately, not missed and invisible to the rest of society.

A very sad and troubling case indeed.