Government minister James Brokenshire warned. "rogue employers" who give work to illegal migrants were denying UK citizens jobs, driving down wages and gaining an "unfair advantage". He went on to say, "Experience tells us that employers who are prepared to cheat employment rules are also likely to breach health and safety rules and pay insufficient tax.” Cameron promised earlier this month to tackle modern slavery in the UK.
Six Lithuanians are suing for damages and were 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. 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. Many of their allegations are corroborated by an official inspection report prepared by the GLA after the police raid, which the Guardian obtained with a freedom of information request. It catalogues a string of abuses and serious breaches of regulations by what the GLA has described as “the worst UK gangmaster ever”.
The Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA) revoked the licence of DJ Houghton immediately after the raid and police arrested the Houghtons, but three years on there have been no charges against the gangmasters or their associates.The couple appealed against the decision in June 2013 and told local media they would clear their name. They later withdrew their appeal. The Guardian has learned that they had their licence revoked on a previous occasion in 2007 for breaches relating to excessive hours, failure to comply with employment legislation and unsafe accommodation. They applied for a new licence once again in November 2014. The final GLA decision on this application is still awaited. The GLA told the Guardian that its powers were limited to revoking licences and prosecuting gangmasters who were unlicensed. It has no powers to impose fines or prosecute for abuses those who are licensed; that responsibility lies with the police.
A UK arrest warrant was issued for one of the overseers, Edikas Mankevicius, who is alleged by workers to have acted as the Houghtons’ “enforcer” with their knowledge, and to have assaulted some of the men. Mankevicius had returned to Lithuania just before the raids, however, and police say they have been unable to interview him. They have not applied for a European arrest warrant for him. A spokesperson for Kent police said they believed they would need to interview him before having enough evidence to apply for one.
Shanta Martin, a solicitor at Leigh Day, which is representing the Lithuanian victims, said they were bringing the civil action because they were “incensed that in the three years since their escape there appeared to have been no repercussions for those they believed mistreated them…It seemed to them extraordinary that the police had not followed up with them, despite their willingness to act as witnesses in a prosecution and the fact that many of them had been confirmed as victims of human trafficking,” she said.
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.