Raimundas Lekavicious, Vytas Mikalauskas and Jurius Kalinkinas, this week, with their former employers, Jackie Judge and Darrel Houghton (right)
“Please, we want to work for Jackie and Darrel.”
That was the plea from Vytas Mikalauskas, Raimundas Lekavicious and Jurius Kalinkinas, three Lithuanians who the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) said were allegedly threatened and assaulted by their former employers Darrel Houghton and Jackie Judge.
The couple were the owners of DJ Houghton Catching Services, based in Linton, until armed policemen and officers from the GLA swooped on their home last October.
Miss Judge said: “It was terrifying. I was still in my nightclothes. Darrel was in his boxer shorts. Suddenly, there were policemen with guns in my kitchen.”
Two policemen took the couple’s son to the bus stop in Mereworth, where they left him to wait for his school bus to Tonbridge, while another two took their 13-year-old daughter to her school in Maidstone.
Meanwhile, the parents were arrested and carted off to a police station – in the full glare of BBC TV cameras, which had been invited along by the GLA to film the dramatic event.
Miss Judge, who was frequently close to tears as she recounted her story, said: “It was so cruel on the children. They couldn’t understand what was going on. We didn’t understand what was going on.”
“Why couldn’t they just come and talk to us?”
Mr Houghton has a hobby farm in Bougton Monchelsea where he breeds pigs.
He said: “The police went and searched all the pigsties. I think they thought we had people chained up in there. All they found was pigs.”
Mr Houghton and Miss Judge were licensed to employ teams of men to travel to poultry farms, to catch chickens and load them for the slaughterhouse.
It is tough, physical work, as Mr Houghton, 53, knows - he has been catching chickens all his life and often worked alongside his men – but work which his workers were good at.
Since the Houghtons’ licence was revoked, their team of 32 Lithuanians and four English minibus drivers have been largely without work.
Some have drifted away, but others like Vytas, Mikalauskas and Jurius have stayed in Maidstone in the hope that the Houghtons will win back their licence on appeal.
The Houghtons’ catching teams had serviced farms from Cranbrook to Lancashire.
Workers would be picked up by minibus from their homes and driven to the farms.
A normal week’s work, earning an average of £500, was from Sunday till Friday morning. Wages were paid by cheque, with proper deductions for tax and national insurance. The KM has seen the company’s payroll sheets, and the firm’s books were audited by Perrys accountants in West Malling.
Mr Houghton said: “My men were not drifters, illegal immigrants or seasonal workers. They were full-time skilled workers, some of whom had been with me more than 10 years.
“We had 500 farms as customers. I never had a single complaint.”
It was because his teams had the reputation for being the best that his business grew until it was the biggest in the South East.
As his company was registered with Freedom Foods, his teams were subjected not only to audits by the GLA but to 25 unannounced spot-checks by animal welfare experts each year.
When the bird flu scare threatened in 2009, and the Government was preparing plans for the emergency slaughter of chickens, it was DJ Houghton that it approached to offer the catching contract.
Ironically, Mr Houghton said no because he didn’t think the Government's contingency plans offered sufficient protection for his men’s safety.
Following on from the October raid, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority revoked D.J.Houghton’s licence, meaning they could no longer operate their business without committing an offence.
In a press release issued at the time: the GLA said: “Evidence obtained by the GLA identified that the workers were subjected to threats and physical violence, housed in overcrowded accommodation and lived in a climate of fear.”
But almost a year later, the police have confirmed that the Houghtons are no longer suspected of any offence. No charges were ever brought.
The Lithuanians were initially taken to a refugee centre in Dover, but after interview were released and allowed to return to the same accommodation, where some still live today.
The GLA would not debate about what evidence may or may not be revealed in a forthcoming appeal hearing, for which a date has not yet been set.
Raimundas (Ray) Lekavicius is 24 and single. He worked for the Houghtons for three years.
Jurius (Uri) Kalinkinas is 42. He has a wife and two children at home in Lithuania, whom he travels to see three times a year. Uri came to England initially for a job on a building site which fell through. He then heard about the opportunities to make money chicken-catching. He was with the Houghtons for eight years.
Vytas (Sleepin) Mikalaskas is 50, and has a wife, two children and a grandchild at home. He worked for the Houghtons for nine years, and is keen to do so again. “We want to work again,” he said.
Did they get paid properly?
“Yes, yes, of course,” said Ray. “Every week by cheque.”
Was their accommodation all right?
“Yes. it’s good,” said Ray. In fact, the three share a house with a fourth man in Boughton Monchelsea, rented from Miss Judge. The house is Miss Judge's family home, where she was brought up.
Each has his own room, and there is satellite TV so that they can watch Lithuanian programmes.
Were they happy working for the Houghtons? “Very happy,” said Uri. “There were no problems.”
Did the Houghtons ever mistreat you, threaten you or assault you in any way? “No, no, no!” said Sleepin, growing indignant on behalf of his former employers, “Never!”
The Gangmasters Licensing Authority was set up in 2005 following the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster.
By October last year it was under pressure, having failed to meet its target of 18 major busts in 2011. Under the Coalition Government’s Red Tape Challenge, its funding was also slashed by 25%.
In October, it had not yet met its new lowered target of 12 major raids for that year. The governing board redirected the authority to concentrate only on big cases and to move away from more routine investigations. It also authorised the appointment of a press officer to “significantly increase press and broadcast media exposure”.