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A Romanian gangmaster told Portadown slave labourers to 'eat stones'

Ioan Lacatus arrives at Lisburn Court for a previous hearing. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker.

A Romanian gangmaster known as 'The Minister' pocketed the wages of a dozen migrant workers and told them to "eat stones'' when they complained of a lack of warm food, a court has heard.

Convicted fraudster Ioan Lacatus (33), of Hanover Street, Portadown, pleaded guilty at Craigavon Crown Court to conspiracy to traffic, five counts of trafficking people into the UK for exploitation, acting as an unlicensed gangmaster, and converting criminal property.

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.

Her brother, Samuil Covaci, (25), of Tandragee Road, Portadown, pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to traffick to "exploit migrant workers'' between May 1 and August 15, 2014.

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

Mr McDowell QC said the victims had come from a poor rural part of Romania and were "promised E400 per week'' to work eight hours a day, along with a place to stay and food.

"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 at places such as MacNeice Fruit and Irwin's Bakery in Portadown and Finnebrogue in Downpatrick.

One of the workers, the court heard, had worked 68 hours per week in Irwin's Bakery. Another victim had worked 18 days in a row.

"I just want to make it very clear that these companies were unaware of the exploitation by Ioan Lacatus,'' stressed the prosecution counsel.

The judge was told 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 was treated differently from the exploited workers and "received the full amount of money he was due."

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 and they were not allowed to go to the shop''.

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.''

Judge Patrick Lynch adjourned sentencing until next week and released the three defendants on continuing bail.

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