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Gangmaster Licensing Authority under fire after 'extreme exploitation' revealed

A major UK food company has questioned the effectiveness of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) after a company licensed by the authority was accused of ‘extreme exploitation’ of its workers.

Last week the GLA announced it had revoked the licence of DJ Houghton Catching Services Limited with immediate effect following a joint operation with Kent police.


The Maidstone based firm used gangs of workers to catch chickens at farms across the UK. These farms supplied premium free range eggs to McDonald’s, Tesco, Asda and M&S, ‘Woodland’ eggs to Sainsbury’s, and the RSPCA Freedom Food and Noble Foods Happy Eggs brands, according to a report in the Guardian.


Neil Court of GLA described it as ‘one of the worse cases of exploitation the GLA has ever uncovered in the food supply chain’.


Evidence obtained by the GLA in operations around Kent identified that the mainly Lithuanian workers were subjected to threats and physical violence, housed in overcrowded accommodation, and lived in a climate of fear.


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 GLA said.


In addition to the action by the GLA, Kent Police arrested two individuals on suspicion of human trafficking offences.


The GLA said its investigation found those workers ‘suffered exploitation so extreme’ that it had to order the firm to stop supplying workers to farms and food factories immediately.


“Together these issues demonstrated to the GLA that D J Houghton Catching Services Limited breached so many of the licence conditions that continued operation would have been totally unacceptable, resulting in the decision to revoke the licence,” the GLA said.


Noble Foods, one of the companies supplied by farms that used the gangmaster, said it was ‘shocked and saddened’ by reports of the exploitation by the company and stressed that it takes the matter ‘extremely seriously’.


But it said it would only ever use companies approved by both the GLA and Freedom Food for this type of work and questioned why the company was licensed in the first place and why it took so long for the licence to be revoked.


“It is our understanding that it is exactly the role of the GLA to protect companies such as ours against poor gang master practise via their licensing system,” a Noble Foods spokesman said.


“As soon as we were made aware of the action taken by Kent police we ceased using the organisation involved. This was approximately four weeks ago. We note their actual license was not revoked until Monday evening (October 29) this week.”


Noble Foods said the work the Kent labour supplier carried out for it has been moved to other GLA and Freedom Food suppliers.


“We are seeking assurances from all concerned in the approval process that any company we use is appropriately audited and approved as we have always previously been assured,” the spokesperson said.


“We will continue to do everything in our power to ensure the suppliers we use operate to the highest standards of both human and animal welfare.”


The RSPCA said DJ Houghton Catching Services had been suspended from the Freedom Food scheme as of October 30th 2012, pending the outcome of ongoing legal proceedings.


“Should these shocking allegations regarding workers at the site prove to be true, then the business’s membership of Freedom Food will be withdrawn,” the charity said in a statement.


“It is the direct responsibility of any Freedom Food member to ensure that they and their staff adhere to the required RSPCA animal welfare standards. If this is found not to be the case through the scheme’s monitoring of adherence to the standards, then a member can be removed from the scheme.”


Mr Court said: “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.”


Meanwhile, an appeal by one of the farmers caught up in the long-running dairy farmer gangmaster case is due to be heard at the Bristol Civil Justice Centre on Tuesday (November 6).


Ken Moss, from Moss and Sons in Slimbridge, is appealing against his conviction in March for entering into an agreement with an unlicensed labour provider. He was given an absolute discharge and was not handed any penalty but was ordered to pay costs.


Mr Moss is one of 17 farmers still caught up in the case.

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