Two people have been arrested and a gangmaster company has had its licence revoked by the Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA) following a joint investigation into chicken catching operations by Kent Police, the GLA and the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC).
Officers from Kent Police arrested a 52-year-old man and a 50-year-old woman from the Maidstone area following what the force described as an ‘extensive’ multi-agency investigation. It said it was alleged that Lithuanian workers were being forced to live in squalid conditions and threatened with violence if they did not comply with their supervisor’s instructions. They said that a total of 32 people had been identified as potential victims of human trafficking as a result of the operation.
The GLA subsequently announced that it had revoked the licence of D J Houghton Catching Services Limited, a Freedom Food member that used gangs of workers to catch chickens at farms across the UK. It said the GLA’s investigation found that workers suffered exploitation so extreme that the authority had to order the firm to stop supplying workers to farms and food factories immediately.
The GLA said exploitation had been uncovered at locations around Kent. Workers were subjected to threats and physical violence, were housed in overcrowded accommodation and lived in a climate of fear, it said. The workers were also charged excessive job finding fees, had pay stopped for the most spurious reasons and had to work without proper health and safety equipment.
The authority said that D J Houghton Catching Services Limited, which has a right to appeal against the decision, breached so many licence conditions that continued operation would have been totally unacceptable.
Neil Court of the GLA said in a statement, “This is one of the worse cases of exploitation the GLA has ever uncovered in the food supply chain. The GLA remains committed to tackling the worst offenders, ensuring that those companies and individuals that are intent on exploiting workers are prevented from holding a GLA licence, or have their licence revoked.”
A spokesperson for Kent Police said, "Kent Police will support the GLA’s role to control any company which fails to comply with the licensing legislation, which was set up to protect the rights of workers. Such failures can and do lead to exploitation. Jointly we will seek to prevent and prosecute any identified exploitation, whether through civil regulation or criminal investigation.”
The RSPCA issued a statement to say that it was the "direct responsibility" of any Freedom Food member to ensure that they and their staff adhered to the required RSPCA animal welfare standards. If this was found not to be the case through the scheme's monitoring of adherence to the standards, then a member could be removed from the scheme, it said.
"Where the member does anything which would bring Freedom Food or the RSPCA into disrepute then the membership agreement makes provision for suspending or cancelling a business's membership of the Freedom Food scheme. In line with the scheme rules, DJ Houghton Catching Services have been suspended from the scheme as of October 30th 2012, pending the outcome of legal proceedings that are currently ongoing. Should these shocking allegations regarding workers at the site prove to be true, then the business’s membership of Freedom Food will be withdrawn."
It has been reported that the catching teams worked on farms supplying eggs
to McDonald's, Tesco, Asda, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's. They also worked on farms supplying Noble's Happy Egg brand, according to the Guardian newspaper.
A spokesman for Tesco said, "As a founder member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, we are committed to decent working conditions on all the farms and factories in our supply chain.
"These allegations are clearly shocking. We are pleased that our supplier, Noble Foods, took action as soon as they became aware of the issue, and we will continue to work closely with the GLA, our suppliers and others to ensure good practice throughout the sector."
At the time of the arrests, Detective Inspector Keith Roberts of Kent Police, who co-ordinated the operation, said, “These arrests form part of an extensive investigation by Kent Police, the GLA and UKHTC. It follows on from reports received that migrant workers have been made to live in poor conditions and forced to work in an environment that gave little or no regard to their safety or general well being.”
He said, “By working with our partner agencies we have been able to make these arrests and workers will now be offered help and support. Anyone found to be committing exploitation offences will be investigated fully and brought before the courts.”
Ian Livsey, chief executive of the Gangmaster Licensing Authority said, “We are determined to drive out those ruthless people who abuse and exploit vulnerable workers. Working with our partner agencies, we have cracked down on potential exploitation in the food supply chain. There is no hiding place for those who exploit the vulnerable, and neither we nor our partner law enforcement agencies will tolerate abuse of the vulnerable worker.”
The GLA is the body that regulates businesses that provide workers to the fresh produce supply chain and horticulture industry. Its job is to ensure that these businesses meet the employment standards required by law.
Liam Vernon (pictured), deputy head of the UK Human Trafficking Centre at the Serious Organised Crime Agency, said, “We suspect the people arrested were involved in the trafficking of Lithuanian men into the United Kingdom for exploitation within the food industry. It’s alleged that the men, who have received specialist care and support from SOCA’s Vulnerable Persons Team and the Salvation Army, were subjected to slave-like conditions and controlled through the use of violence.”
He said, “Investigating trafficking for labour exploitation is a challenge to us all, as victims are kept locked away and unseen by society. Last year 461 adult and child victims were encountered by frontline professionals and reported to the centre. They were being used for their labour in many different ways, all for the financial gain of the traffickers.
“We will continue to work with our partners to bring offenders to justice and protect vulnerable members of our society. I urge anybody with information that can lead to the identification and rescue of a victim of trafficking to share it with the police.”
The Lithuanian workers have been referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking and ensuring that people receive appropriate protection and support.
Major Anne Read, the Salvation Army's anti-trafficking response co-ordinator, said, "The Salvation Army is working with Kent Police and SOCA's team to support suspected victims of trafficking. It is vital that the men receive immediate access to specialised support and counselling. We have a special team ready to support them and ensure that they have access to emergency accommodation at safe houses. The Government has awarded the Salvation
Army £2 million a year to provide vital help and support to victims of this exploitation.” The National Farmers' Union has, in light of the arrests, urged farmers to be aware. In advice provided through NFU Poultry Board members, the NFU's chief poultry advisor, Kelly Watson, said farmers should regularly check that any labour providers they were using, or were proposing to use, were licensed by the GLA. She said the GLA expected a high level of due diligence from labour users, who should know the names of the agency workers supplied to their business and talk to workers individually to ensure that they were well treated and were receiving the appropriate minimum wage and holiday entitlement.