Three people have been arrested in Latvia for allegedly “trafficking and enslaving” at least 12 Indian nationals to work in factories producing biscuits, waffles and cakes, police said on Friday.
Workers were “repeatedly exploited and abused, their salaries were withheld, they were forced into debt and their passports were stolen using physical violence against them,” a police statement said.
Police carried out raids in 22 locations during the investigation into the Adugs confectionery group, seizing handguns, ammunition, jewellery and cash.
One of the three people arrested is the owner of the bakeries, Jazeps Zukuls, a 65-year-old millionaire.
He is being held with no right to post bail.
The investigation focused on bakeries in the Latgale region in the east of the Baltic EU member state.
“The mastermind of the organized crime group is well known in political and criminal circles in the Latgale region,” police spokeswoman Gita Gzibovska said.
Zukuls was “previously investigated in connection with tax evasion, environmental pollution and voting fraud during elections,” she said.
Facebook users dubbed the suspect the “Cookie Monster”.
But lawyer Viktorija Jarkina, speaking for the Adugs group of companies, denied the accusations.
“All the workers from India had employment contracts, their taxes were paid, they were provided with living space,” she told LETA newswire.
Latvia’s biggest retail chains reacted by announcing that they would no longer stock Adugs products.
“Information published by the police has shocked everybody. It is simply unacceptable by any human standards,” Laila Vartukapteine, commercial director of Elvi food store chain, told LETA.
Adugs has posted losses since 2015 when competition in the confectionery business became harsher after the EU market opened to cheaper Ukrainian products.
“Ukrainians have cheaper flour, cheaper labour and cheaper other production costs, which will force us to lower our costs in other ways,” Normunds Sala, board member of Adugs, told Latvijas Avize daily in 2015.