Ground-breaking modern slavery case launched against British company
In one of the first legal cases of its kind, a British company is being taken to the High Court by victims of modern slavery seeking compensation for their alleged abuse and mistreatment.
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Six Lithuanian men are accusing Kent-based DJ Houghton Catching Services Limited (DJ Houghton), and the company’s director and secretary, Darrell Houghton and Jacqueline Judge, of liability for trafficking the men and subjecting them to severe labour exploitation.
The claimants were trafficked into the UK from Lithuania by a man allegedly engaged by the Houghtons to find workers for their chicken catching business.
After starting work with DJ Houghton, the claimants say they were housed in overcrowded and dirty accommodation, and subjected to intimidation and abuse.
Five of the men have been officially recognised as victims of trafficking by the National Crime Agency’s UK Human Trafficking Centre, with the sixth in the process.
One of the men, Antanas Galdikas, described, "We felt trapped. We felt we were being treated like slaves."
They claim they were forced to work without a bed, a shower or adequate food on an almost continuous rota for days at a time, for which they were grossly underpaid.
They were employed by DJ Houghton between 2008 and 2012 to catch birds in chicken houses and load them onto trucks bound for processing plants. The farms on which the men worked supplied chickens and free-range eggs, including for major brands such as “Happy Eggs”, available in supermarkets across Britain.
The claimants’ lawyer, Shanta Martin, head of the modern slavery case team at law firm, Leigh Day, said, “Our clients just wanted to work for a decent living to support themselves and their families. Instead, they found themselves indebted, abused and working extremely long hours without proper pay. They now face homelessness and destitution.”
DJ Houghton was condemned as “the worst UK gangmaster ever” by the public body tasked with protecting agricultural workers from labour exploitation, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA).
According to the legal complaint, the men, who were aged between 19 and 58, were driven from farm to farm across the United Kingdom, travelling up to seven hours before being put to gruelling work in filthy conditions without adequate personal protective equipment or clothing. They were supposedly paid per chicken caught, without any system for ensuring they earned the minimum wage.
After finishing work at one farm the men were driven to another farm. If they were returned home, often less than an hour later, they would be sent out to work again. Wages were ‘docked’ on the most spurious of pretexts, including leaving a mug unwashed in a kitchen sink or being seen out on a night off.
The men were not paid for time spent travelling. Requests to stop the mini-bus for toilet breaks were denied.
The claimants say they had no idea where they were travelling or how long they would be gone for. No food or drink was provided. Instead, they had to guess how much food they would need and take their own.
The workers allege they were harassed and brutalised by their supervisors; Lithuanian nationals known to them only by their first names. One man, who bred aggressive Rottweiler dogs, would intimidate workers with the dogs.
The supervisors hit and kicked workers if it was felt they were not working fast enough. One of the claimants was allegedly hit so hard as to split his lip and was then further humiliated by the supervisor pouring urine or cider onto the wound.
The claimants freed themselves from the abuse by escaping to a nearby Citizens Advice Bureau in August 2012. Despite being liberated almost three years ago, the men were not introduced to civil lawyers until last year.
Law firm Leigh Day has begun legal action on their behalf against the company and its owners. The claimants are also seeking answers from the GLA as to why it didn’t do more to prevent the abuse or liberate them from exploitation.
The case continues in the High Court, with a hearing scheduled for Tuesday 11 August 2015 to determine whether the Houghton defendants should be allowed to delay the litigation until 2016.
Acting for the claimants, Leigh Day says the application will be “vehemently opposed”.