Maidstone gangmaster firm sued by 'slave' workers

Gangmaster arrest
Image caption Kent Police raided the premises of DJ Houghton in October 2012 and arrested two people

Six men are suing a former gangmaster after they were trafficked to work as chicken-catchers on UK farms.

The Lithuanian nationals allege Kent-based DJ Houghton Catching Services exploited them after employing a trafficker, also from Lithuania.

The firm lost its licence after police raids in 2012 and was branded "the worst UK gangmaster ever" by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA).

The High Court heard the company's application to delay the case.

The court ruled DJ Houghton Catching Services has until 30 October to make their defence.

Lawyers Leigh Day, who are seeking compensation for the Lithuanian men, say the proceedings are a landmark modern slavery case.

'Grossly underpaid'

The men, who were aged between 19 and 58, allege they were forced to work without a bed, a shower or adequate food for days at a time, for which they were grossly underpaid.

They were employed between 2008 and 2012 to catch birds in chicken houses and load them on to trucks bound for processing plants.

Image caption The men were employed to catch chickens for the food industry in farms across the UK

The men say they were driven from farm to farm, travelling for up to seven hours before being put to work in filthy conditions without adequate protective equipment or clothing and with no system for ensuring they earned the minimum wage.

No food or drink was provided and the workers allege they were harassed and hit and kicked by their supervisors.

One man, who bred aggressive Rottweiler dogs, intimidated workers with the dogs, they allege.

'Disgraceful standards'

The men escaped to a Citizens Advice Bureau in August 2012, before the company, based in Wheelers Lane, Maidstone was raided by Kent Police in October.

The GLA revoked its licence on 30 October, saying its treatment of workers was "disgraceful by anyone's standards".

The company maintained it was blameless and appealed against the loss of the licence, but withdrew its action last year and accepted the GLA's decision.

Leigh Day said it would vehemently oppose an application to delay the case in the High Court.

The firm's director and secretary, Darrell Houghton and Jacqueline Judge, want to postpone proceedings until next year.

Kent Police said the bail for the two people arrested had expired.

"The investigation into the alleged exploitation of Lithuanian workers remains open and Kent Police will act on any further information that comes to light," it said in a statement.

"Kent Police, through its partnership with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, has supported the victims in this case and liaised closely with them throughout the investigation."

Image caption Kent Police carried out an early morning raid on the premises of DJ Houghton

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