By Lin Taylor
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A group of Lithuanian men trafficked to Britain to work on chicken farms have won a landmark civil case against their captors, in the first ruling against a British firm sued for modern slavery offences.
A high court judge on Friday ruled in favour of the victims, finding the company guilty of charging prohibited fees, unlawfully withholding wages, and failing to ensure the workers had adequate living and working conditions.
The six victims, aged 19 to 58, sought compensation for injuries, unpaid wages and breaches of health and safety. Compensation will be assessed at a later date.
"This is the first time the High Court has ruled in favour of victims of trafficking against a British company," said Shanta Martin from Leigh Day, the law firm representing the six men, said in a statement.
"It is an extremely important step towards proper compensation for our clients and should be seen as a warning to British companies that they must eradicate all forms of modern slavery from their businesses, whether in the UK or elsewhere."
The Lithuanian migrants accused the owners of DJ Houghton, which supplied chickens and eggs to British supermarkets, of trafficking, abuse and beatings over several years.
The first court hearing took place in 2015, just days after Britain's Modern Slavery Act came into force, aimed at cracking down on traffickers and cleaning up corporate supply chains..
The group were trafficked into Britain in 2008 and employed by DJ Houghton to catch birds in chicken houses. They escaped in August 2012 and gave statements to the local police. They offered to act as witnesses, but the police did not contact them again, Martin said.
Police raided houses belonging to DJ Houghton director Darrell Houghton and company secretary Jacqueline Judge, just two months later and freed several suspected victims of trafficking, but there were no criminal proceedings against the pair at the time.
Britain has sought to lead the way in combating human trafficking, a $150 billion a year industry.
The workers said they were harassed and brutalised by their supervisors, and intimidated with dogs. One supervisor allegedly split the lip of a worker by punching him in the face, before pouring urine and cider into the wound.
"We felt trapped... we were being treated like slaves," one of the men, Antanas Galdikas, previously told the solicitors.
Britain's Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA), the government body which regulates the supply of workers to the agriculture industry, said it revoked the licence of DJ Houghton immediately after the police raid on the directors' properties.
Since the first proceedings, an additional 10 migrants have come forward to join the civil claim against the chicken company.
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women's rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)