20 December 2016
Leigh Day today announced it has achieved substantial compensation for the first claimants to ever bring a High Court case against a British company in relation to modern slavery
The legal action, led by Shanta Martin
, partner at law firm Leigh Day, alleges that Kent-based couple, Darrell Houghton and Jacqueline Judge, who ran the company, DJ Houghton Catching Services Limited, had subjected victims of human trafficking to severe labour exploitation.
“Our clients have faced enormous difficulties since they came to the UK thinking they would be earning a decent living for honest work, but found themselves being terribly exploited by a British business,” said Ms Martin. “Our clients are so pleased to finally be getting not only wages they were owed, but a substantial sum to settle claims alleging physical and psychological abuse.”
In June 2016, the High Court found in favour of the claimants on several key aspects of the case
, including that the Houghton defendants had failed to pay workers according to minimum wage requirements, had made unlawful deductions from wages, and had failed to provide adequate facilities to to wash, rest, eat and drink.
The claimants also allege that they were harassed, assaulted, and threatened by supervisors, housed in appalling conditions and kept in a constant state of uncertainty. The defendants did not admit liability.
In addition to the compensation payable under the settlement, the Houghton defendants have had to pay a very large amount towards their own legal defence costs. The Houghton defendants are also facing compensation claims from another 10 workers, whose case before the High Court had been stayed pending the outcome of the first six claims.
Ms Martin, who heads the modern slavery case team at Leigh Day, said, “We are extremely pleased to have achieved this result for our clients as it will go a huge way towards helping them rebuild their lives. The very large bill being faced by the defendants for both the compensation and their defence costs, is also a salutary lesson to others who might seek to profit from modern slavery.”
The claimants were trafficked to the UK from Lithuania by a man whom the Houghton defendants admitted paying to find workers for their chicken catching business. The Houghtons then put the men to work on a gruelling schedule, catching chickens on farms across the entire country.
The farms to which the Houghtons sent their workers supplied chickens and free-range eggs, including for major companies that produce brands such as “Happy Eggs”, available in supermarkets across Britain.
The first six claimants were employed by DJ Houghton between 2008 and 2012 to catch birds in barns and load them onto trucks bound for processing plants. After starting work with the Houghtons, the claimants say they were housed in overcrowded and dirty accommodation, and subjected to intimidation and abuse.
According to the legal complaint, the men, who were aged between 19 and 58, were driven from farm to farm across the United Kingdom for days at a time, travelling up to seven hours before being put to gruelling work in filthy conditions without adequate personal protective equipment or clothing. If they were returned home between farms, it was often less than an hour later that they would be sent out to work again. 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 Houghton defendants admitted that they had no system for ensuring workers earned the minimum wage. The claimants alleged that 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 workers allege they were harassed and brutalised by their supervisors, who punched and taunted workers if it was felt they were not working fast enough, and that one man would intimidate workers with aggressive Rottweiler dogs.
Shanta Martin is also representing another 10 claimants bringing very similar claims in proceedings that had been stayed pending the outcome of the first six claims. The Houghtons face the prospect of the stay now being lifted on those proceedings, with the case likely to be heard in 2017.
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