A group of Lithuanian men trafficked to Britain to work on chicken farms are suing their captors in a landmark civil case which has raised concerns about the criminal justice system's ability to tackle modern slavery, lawyers said on Tuesday.
The six men are seeking compensation for injuries, unpaid wages and breaches of health and safety, the first time a British firm has been taken to court accused of modern slavery.
The first hearing took place on Tuesday, just 11 days after Britain's Modern Slavery Act came into force, aimed at cracking down on traffickers and cleaning up corporate supply chains.
The Lithuanian migrants accuse the owners of DJ Houghton, which produces eggs for high street stores, of trafficking, abuse and beatings over several years, according to Leigh Day, a law firm representing the victims.
"They spoke about being subjected to pretty appalling abuse... both physical violence and psychological trauma, designed to intimidate and humiliate," Leigh Day solicitor Shanta Martin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
The men, aged 19 to 58, 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 directors, Darrell Houghton and Jacqueline Judge, just two months later and freed several suspected victims of trafficking, but there have been no criminal proceedings against the two.
"The men were livid about the lack of criminal prosecution, and feel like they have been left by the wayside... there is certainly an issue about the extent to which the police properly followed up this case," Martin said.
Britain has sought to lead the way in combating human trafficking, a $150 billion a year industry.
Prime Minister David Cameron recently said Britain would work with Vietnam to tackle child trafficking to the UK, while anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland pushed successfully to have a pledge to eradicate slavery included in proposed U.N. development goals.
URINE IN THE WOUND
The six men - five of whom have had their status as victims of human trafficking confirmed by the National Crime Agency's Human Trafficking Centre - said they were forced to work without a bed, a shower or enough food for days at a time.
The workers, aged between 19 and 58, 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, 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.
Yet it does not have the authority to impose fines or prosecute companies which are licensed, a GLA official said.
A spokesman for Kent police said the investigation into the alleged exploitation of Lithuanian workers remained open and the police would act on any new information that came to light.
Campaigners welcomed the case but said it showed that victims could not rely on the authorities to obtain justice.
"Cases where forced labour is not investigated by the police because of lack of knowledge, priority or resources are all too common," said Klara Skrivankova, Europe programme and advocacy co-ordinator at Anti-Slavery International.
Darrell Houghton, Jacqueline Judge, and their legal representatives could not be reached for comment. The directors previously told local media that they were blameless.