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Judgment against “UK’s Worst Gangmaster” in favour of modern slavery victims

First High Court hearing against a British company on Modern Slavery finds in favour of six men trafficked into the UK

Photo of trafficking victim Laurynas courtesy of the Guardian

10 June 2016

The High Court today handed down judgment in favour of six Lithuanian men who were trafficked to the UK and claim to have been severely exploited by the British company that employed them, DJ Houghton Catching Services Limited and company officers, Darrell Houghton and Jackie Judge (the Houghton Defendants).

The judge, Justice Supperstone, found in favour of the Claimants on several key aspects of their claims including that they were not paid according to minimum wage requirements for agricultural workers.

The Claimants obtained judgment against the Houghton Defendants who paid the men for the number of chickens caught on farms, rather than paying for time worked at minimum rates including night rates and for time spent travelling.

The Houghton Defendants were also found to have charged prohibited fees, unlawfully withheld wages, and failed to ensure the workers had adequate facilities to wash, rest, eat and drink.

The amount of compensation to be paid to the Claimants will be assessed at a future date. Other aspects of the claim, such as personal injury claims, also remain to be determined.

The judge also ruled against an application by the Houghton Defendants to strike out the Claimants’ case. The claimants welcomed the decision as an important victory.

“This is the first time the High Court has ruled in favour of victims of trafficking against a British company" said Shanta Martin, the partner from law firm Leigh Day who is representing the claimants.

“It is an extremely important step towards proper compensation for our clients and should be seen as a warning to British companies that they must eradicate all forms of modern slavery from their businesses, whether in the UK or elsewhere”.

The claimants allege that they were trafficked to the UK with the involvement of a Lithuanian national who was paid for this service by the Houghton Defendants. Upon arrival in the UK, the Claimants say they were severely exploited by the Houghtons.

The company, based in Kent, ran a business providing labour to poultry farms across the UK, including farms that supply chickens and free-range eggs for major brands such as Happy Eggs, available in supermarkets across Britain.

The claimants, represented by Leigh Day, initiated proceedings in the High Court seeking compensation for unpaid wages, distress, personal injuries and consequential losses as a result of the Houghton Defendants’ unlawful actions.

According to the legal complaint, the men, who were aged between 19 and 58, were driven from farm to farm across the UK, travelling up to seven hours before being put to gruelling work in filthy conditions without adequate personal protective equipment, clothing or proper pay.

They were paid by the number of chickens caught, without consideration for the number of hours worked, time spent travelling or time on-call.

The Claimants allege that their wages were often docked or withheld entirely, and that workers were threatened and abused by supervisors, including with the use of dogs.

The Houghton Defendants’ lawyers, appointed by insurance giant, Aviva, filed a defence which lawyers for the claimants say did not respond to large parts of the claims. Earlier this year, the Claimants therefore applied to strike out the Houghtons’ Defences and enter summary judgment. In response, the Houghtons applied to strike out the Claimants’ case.

A two-day hearing before Supperstone J took place on 11 and 12 May in the Royal Courts of Justice, London, leading to this judgment.

Background

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).

The licence under which the Houghton Defendants operated was revoked by the GLA on 29 October 2012 and 38 workers were referred to the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which confirmed that all the men were victims of trafficking.

Leigh Day represents 16 Claimants in the litigation. Civil claims by 6 men were first commenced in December 2014. A further 10 claimants later came forward and initiated further proceedings, which are stayed pending the outcome of the first proceedings. The Claimants seek damages for negligence, harassment, assault, breach of contract, and breach of statutory duties. A hearing will be scheduled for the assessment of damages in respect of the claims in which the claimants obtained judgment.

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