Directors personally liable to pay exploited chicken-catchers for breach of contract


10 April 2019

In 2016, a ‘chicken-catching’ business (DJ Houghton Catching Services) was obliged to pay a group of trafficked Lithuanian workers £1m in compensation for loss of wages and poor working conditions following a High Court action. It was the first legal ruling against a British gangmaster business for modern slavery offences.

The workers had been sent to catch chickens at farms across the country, and were subjected to appalling living and working conditions. They were forced to work shifts without respite, slept in the back of a mini bus, and worked immensely more hours than those recorded on their payslips. See the BBC report of the case.

Following on from this, a second group of former employees have also won a High Court ruling this week for serious contractual and statutory breaches including the failure to pay applicable minimum wages, charging of unlawful ’employment fees’, failure to pay holiday pay and the arbitrary withholding of wages.

In this landmark case, the judge has held that the two directors of the company were personally liable to the workers for the contractual breaches of their company, which opens the way for the workers to claim compensation directly from the couple. The amount owed to the individuals will be determined at a subsequent hearing.

The judgment is a warning to company officers that they may be found personally liable for the exploitation of their workers if they knowingly cause their company to operate in breach of contractual and regulatory requirements, particularly if such breaches seriously harm the reputation or financial viability of their company. In this case, it seems the company was in a precarious financial position meaning that the claimants now have a greater chance of recovering their losses from the individual directors.

The content of this article is for general information only. For further information please contact Laura Brown or a member of Birketts' Employment Team. Law covered as at April 2019.