A group of Lithuanian migrants who were trafficked to work in farms producing eggs for high street brands are suing a Kent-based gangmaster operation and its directors, in the first case of a UK company being taken to court for claims relating to modern slavery.
The six Lithuanians suing for damages are among a group of more than 30 men who worked as chicken catchers for DJ Houghton, owned by Darrell Houghton and Jacqueline Judge of Maidstone. Police raided houses controlled by the gangmaster couple in 2012 and liberated several suspected victims of human trafficking.
Speaking exclusively to the Guardian this week, the workers bringing the legal action have described inhuman and degrading conditions. They said they were driven to farms and factories around the UK to undertake back-to-back eight-hour shifts for days at a time.
They said they were the victims of violence, described the process of being debt-bonded on arrival, and spoke of their accommodation riddled with bedbugs and of becoming so hungry that they ate raw eggs. They have reported being denied sleep and toilet breaks, forcing them to urinate into bottles and defecate into carrier bags in their vehicle.
They also allege that their pay was repeatedly withheld, while Lithuanian supervisors working with the Houghtons abused and assaulted workers, intimidated them with fighting dogs and threatened them with instant eviction if they complained. Accommodation provided was dirty, overcrowded and unsafe and infested with bed bugs and fleas.
A Guardian investigation in 2012 revealed that the trafficked Lithuanians were working in supply chains producing premium free range eggs for McDonald’s, Tesco, Asda, M&S, and the Sainsbury’s Woodland brand. The farm sheds they cleared of chickens also produced eggs under the Freedom Food brand, and for Noble Foods, owner of the Happy Egg Company.
Noble Foods is the UK’s largest egg company and it and its chairman, Peter Dean, have been major donors to the Conservative party. The company helicopter has been lent on occasion to the prime minister, David Cameron, for election campaigning. Cameron promised earlier this month to tackle modern slavery in the UK.
It is notoriously hard for victims of trafficking to get justice. There have been 75 convictions for gangmaster offences since the Gangmaster Licensing Act regulating them came in to force, but only one compensation order for workers.