A company that supplies catchers to the poultry industry, and is a member of the RSPCA’s Freedom Food scheme, has been accused of exploiting Lithuanian workers.

D J Houghton Catching Services, from Maidstone, Kent, has had its licence revoked by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), following a joint operation with Kent Police.

Kent Police said a warrant to search an address was executed as the result of an extensive investigation involving Kent Police, the GLA and the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

Following the raid, Kent Police arrested two individuals on suspicion of human trafficking offences. Police enquiries are ongoing.

Detective inspector Keith Roberts, who led the action, said that the raid “follows on from reports 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 well-being”.

The GLA said it had revoked the licence of the company with immediate effect.

“Evidence obtained directly by the GLA identified that the mainly Lithuanian workers were subjected to threats and physical violence, housed in overcrowded accommodation, and lived in a climate of fear,” said a GLA statement.

“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.”

GLA spokesman Neil Court described it as “one of the worst cases of exploitation the GLA has ever uncovered in the food supply chain.”

The RSPCA has also suspended the company from its Freedom Food scheme, pending the outcome of the ongoing police investigation. Although the scheme does not have specific labour standards, Freedom Food said it could suspend members if it felt they brought the scheme into disrepute.

Egg packer Noble Foods, which used the firm to hire catchers, said as soon as it was aware of the action undertaken, it had stopped using the company.

“It is our understanding that the role of the GLA is to protect companies such as ours against poor gangmaster practice via their licensing system,” said a statement. “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 NFU said it wanted to take the opportunity to remind members it was their responsibility to check gangmasters were licenced with the GLA.

“A labour user who turns a blind eye to the exploitation of gangworkers risks being seen as complicit,” it said. “In the most serious circumstances, a labour user found to be complicit with an exploitive gangmaster might even be subject to account under the Proceeds of Crime Act.”

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