Ivars Mezals, 28, of Conference Way, together with 36-year-old Juris Valujevs, of Cresswell Street, King’s Lynn, deny charges of operating as a gangmaster without a licence, fraud and breaching immigration law.
Valujevs’ wife, Oksana Valujeva, 33, also of Cresswell Street, King’s Lynn and their friend Lauma Vankova, 26, of Turbus Road, King’s Lynn, have also pleaded not guilty to breaching immigration law.
Gregory Perrins, prosecuting, told Blackfriars Crown Court the victims, who were mainly from Latvia and Lithuania, had voluntarily travelled to Britain and signed up for work through Mezals and Valujevs under the promise of regular hours, good pay and the “hope of a better life”.
But they were forced to live in cramped and dilapidated homes for double the going rate with no rental agreement, paid fines for “fanciful” reasons including smoking and were threatened if they complained.
Mr Perrins said: “Typically work was withheld when a worker first arrived until they had built up a debt, initially for unpaid rent, to those exploiting them.
“This was then used as a means of control, preventing them from leaving or living elsewhere.
“When work was provided it was hard and back-breaking. Even so, wages were withheld on the basis it went to clear the debt.
“Workers were typically left with £20 a week, even after working all week in the fields. Sometimes, people were given less than a pound for a week’s work.”
The court heard that women’s alleged debts were often higher than their male colleagues and they were given the chance to clear them by entering a sham marriage.
Mr Perrins said one was sent to India alone for three weeks to marry a man who wanted to get into Britain, while her son remained in the UK.
The trial, which is set to last at least six weeks, continues.