A gangmaster company that is a member of the RSPCA’s ‘Freedom Food’ welfare scheme has had its licence revoked on suspicion of human trafficking for the purposes of labour exploitation.
According to the Guardian
, a 52-year old man and 50-year old woman from the company, which cannot be named for legal reasons, were arrested in a dawn raid on a house in Kent last night.
They were later released on bail pending further enquiries, on condition that they did not attempt to contact the more than 30 Lithuanian workers in their employ who were hired out to Noble Foods
, one of the UK’s largest processors of chicken and eggs.
Noble Foods supplies premium free range eggs to Tesco
, Marks & Spencer
. It also sells eggs under the ‘Woodland’ brand to Sainsbury’s
and to a number of other leading retailers under the Happy Eggs and Freedom Food brands.
They were said to have been kept in debt bondage, forced to work shifts of up to 17 hours without training or safety equipment, made to sleep in vans for days at a time and sometimes denied their wages over minor infractions such as leaving a dirty cup in the kitchen.
Trafficking on the rise
The workers, who as European Union
nationals are legally entitled to work in the UK, also allege that Lithuanian enforcers were used by the gangmasters to keep them under control with physical and verbal abuse and violence.
When Noble Foods was asked by the newspaper what measures it took to ensure that standards were maintained for its workers rather than just the chickens in its supply chain, the firm said in a statement that it was “one of many companies within the poultry industry that has used [this gangmaster]”.
It added: “After being notified of the action taken by Kent police, we immediately ceased using this organisation. As the police investigation is on-going, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further.”
The gangmasters also declined to comment because of the police investigation, while the various retailers named all said that they took the situation very seriously and were co-operating with the enforcement agencies.
Trafficking for labour exploitation is a significant and growing category here, accounting for nearly a quarter of all human trafficking cases.