Company Liable for Keeping Workers in Modern Slavery

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The High Court has ruled that DJ Houghton Catching Services Ltd was liable for workers trafficked to the UK which it exploited in the case of Galdikas & Others v DJ Houghton Catching Services Ltd and others.

Facts

DJ Houghton Catching Services Ltd (the employer) is a company that engages in supply of labour to chicken farms in the UK. Six of their employees alleged that they were trafficked from Lithuania and subjected to severe labour exploitation. All 6 employees have been confirmed to be victims of trafficking by the UK Human Trafficking Centre or the Home Office.

The employees were employed to catch chickens on farms. This usually took place at night since chickens are more docile and easier to catch. They were provided accommodation, as well as transport to the farms where they worked.

Claims

The employees brought a number of claims against their employer DJ Houghton Catching Services Ltd, one of its directors and secretary for breach of contract, breach of the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 (the Act), breach of the Gangmasters (Licensing Conditions) Rules 2009, negligence, harassment and assault. They alleged that as a result of their employer’s wrongful acts they suffered loss and damage including personal injury, distress and unpaid wages.

The employer did not deny that an employment relationship existed but in relation to pay stated that the employees were paid according to the number of birds each employee caught, the employees earnings did not fall below the national minimum wage and payslips were generated by an accountant who also dealt with taxation matters. The employer also raised arguments in relation to control over an individual who enforced the employment fee, as well as the facilities available on different farms.

Decision

The Court pointed out that the issue in question was not whether they were paid the national minimum wage but rather the rates as prescribed in the Agricultural Workers Order, which is higher than the national minimum wage. Similarly, the Court accepted that the method of calculating pay did not take into account whether work was done at night which incurred a higher rate and travelling time was not taken into account as it should have been. It found that the employer had not paid the employees for travel time for which they were entitled as they travelled to different farms as directed by their employer.

In relation to the alleged breach of the Gangmasters (Licensing Conditions) Rules 2009, in a previous investigation the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) carried out a detailed investigation of the employer and it described the employer as “the worst UK gangmaster ever”. This included an allegation for unlawful deductions from or withheld wages for an “employment fee” and lack of facilities to wash, rest, eat and drink.

The employer claimed that a third party who was in charge of enforcing the employment fee being withheld was not their agent, although this was not accepted by the GLA and ultimately by the court. Similarly, the employer claimed that it did not have control over facilities as this was a matter for each farm, although the GLA in a previous report found that the employer was in breach of the rules and the court stated the employer had no real prospect of defending the allegation.

The employer also argued that the application by the employees should be struck out because they had compromised their claims in the employment tribunal or alternatively that all claims for damages (except for personal injury and harassment) constitute an abuse of the process of the court as they could and should have been brought within the employment tribunal proceedings. The court rejected that there was any compromise preventing the employees from bringing the case before the court and many of the heads of claim were not within the jurisdiction of the employment tribunal so there was no obligation on the employees.

This is an important decision as it is the first in the UK where an employer has been found liable in the civil courts for victims of human trafficking. This is significant because engaging in such practices is likely to lead to claims, as well as damage to reputation. It is reported that the trafficked victims in this case were working in the supply chains of leading supermarkets. In light of the obligations of the Modern Slavery Act, this case should also serve as a reminder that businesses need to take greater care in ensuring that modern slavery is eradicated from their supply chain.

Forbes Solicitors regularly advise businesses and organisation on a range of governance issues. If you have any questions in relation to the obligations of the Modern Slavery Act, please contact Daniel Milnes.

 

 

Nat Avdiu

About Nat Avdiu

Nat Avdiu is a Paralegal in the Contracts and Projects team at Forbes Solicitors. Nat provides updates for clients on a range of issues including: governance, data protection and freedom of information, procurement and charity law.
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