Published: 09:33, 10 April 2019
| Updated: 09:39, 10 April 2019
There is more trouble in store for a Maidstone couple who ran a chicken-catching business that was raided by the police and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.
Two years after the initial raid in 2014 on DJ Houghton Catching Services, based in Linton, Kent Police dropped criminal charges against director Darrell Houghton and his partner and company secretary Jackie Judge, saying there was insufficient evidence of criminal action.
But the couple were obliged to a pay six Lithuanian workers £1m in compensation for loss of wages and poor working conditions after they brought a High Court action.
Now a second group of former employees have also won a High Court ruling.
The men were sent to catch chickens at farms all over the country. The court found the workers were obliged to work shifts without respite, sleeping in the back of a mini bus between farms, and worked massively more hours than the number of hours recorded on their payslips.
The court also found that wages were withheld as a form of punishment, that a Lithuanian “enforcer” was used to keep workers under control, and that workers who complained could be evicted into the street.
The judgment delivered this week follows a four-day issue trial and summary judgment application in February, in which the workers gave evidence of their appalling living and working conditions, and how their wages could be withheld for entirely spurious reasons, such as leaving a cup in the sink.
The workers claim they were trafficked to the UK, having paid a fee to middle-men and promised decent work that bore no correlation to what awaited them on arrival.
On Monday the court found the company was liable for serious contractual and statutory breaches, including the failure to pay the applicable minimum wage, the charging of unlawful “employment fees”, the arbitrary withholding of wages, and the failure to pay holiday pay. Although the men signed no employment contracts, these breaches were committed in breach of contractual terms under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 and the related Agricultural Wages Orders.
The court also ruled that Mr Houghton and Ms Judge were personally liable to the workers for the contractual breaches of their company.
The Honourable Mr Justice Lane said that Mr Houghton and Ms Judge “cannot...have honestly believed that what was being done by them to the chicken-catchers was morally or legally sound.”
The judgement opens the way for the workers to claim compensation directly from the couple.
Mary Westmacott, a solicitor for Leigh Day, the firm representing the claimants, said: “This judgment is a salutary warning to company officers that they may be made personally liable for exploitation of their workers.
"I’m delighted that the individuals responsible for my clients’ appalling exploitation have finally been held to account in court. This case highlights how victims of modern slavery are hidden in plain sight in the UK. Everyone can help prevent this abuse by being vigilant and reporting it.”
The couple and their Lithuanian middle-man Edikas Mankevicius are still facing a criminal trial in Lithuania, due to begin on September 3.
Mr Houghton and Miss Judge have pleaded not guilty to "taking advantage of human vulnerability, recruiting and trafficking people ... through the use of physical and mental violence" and exploiting them "under conditions of slavery", in relation to 12 victims.
Mr Mankevicius has in addition pleaded not guilty to recruiting and transporting people "in order to use them forcibly."
It is alleged Mr Mankevicius recruited more than 30 migrants aged between 19 and 58 for Mr Houghton and Ms Judge.