The High Court has ruled in favour of chicken catchers who were subjected to a “gruelling and exploitative work regime” by bosses.
The group of Lithuanian men worked as chicken catchers on farms across Britain for DJ Houghton Catching Services, which supplied Noble Foods, owner of the Happy Egg brand.
Judge Peter Richard Lane supported the workers' claim against DJ Houghton, its director Darrell Houghton, and the secretary Jackie Judge. They were found them liable for a series contractual and statutory breaches under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 and the related Agricultural Wages Orders. Their gangmasters licence was revoked.
During a four-day preliminary issue trial and summary judgement application in February 2019, the workers presented evidence of unlawful treatment reflective of modern slavery, including withheld wages, failure to pay minimun wages, and unsanitary and inadequate living facilities, said law firm Leigh Day, who acted for the claimants.
The court, upholding the application for summary judgement, found the workers were made to work long shifts without rest, “sleeping in the back of a mini bus between farms”, were given inaccurate, unrepresentative hours recorded on their payslips, and were intimidated by an “enforcer” into continuing to work.
The workers claimed they were immigrants trafficked to the UK with the promise of fair work. The workers never signed an employment contract but DJ Houghton was ruled to be in breach of contractual law.
Damages have yet to be awarded.
Leigh Day solicitor Mary Westmacott said: “This judgement is a salutary warning to company officers that they may be made personally liable for exploitation of their workers. This case highlights how victims of modern slavery are hidden in plain sight in the UK.”
Leigh Day said the group of men have outstanding civil claims against the company and Houghton and Judge for alleged injuries suffered during the course of their work, and harassment claims in relation to the gruelling regime, threats of eviction and violence.
In June 2016, DJ Houghton Catching Services, Darrell Houghton and Jackie Judge were found guilty in a modern slavery case involving six separate trafficked workers due to similar breaches, resulting in compensation costs in excess of £1m.
A CIPS spokesperson said: “We can only ensure people are protected from becoming slaves if there are consequences and punishments meted out for those that act against the law and rob individuals of their health and liberty.
“Today was a good day because this takes us one step closer to eliminating slavery and taking meaningful action and punishments against businesses who reap the benefit of worker exploitation in their supply chains.”