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Modern slavery civil suits in Britain got more personal with a high court ruling on Monday that the bosses of trafficked workers – not just the companies they work for – may be “personally liable” for their treatment of victims.

Eleven Lithuanian men trafficked into Britain to work on a chicken farm accused the owners of DJ Houghton Catching Services, which supplied chickens and eggs to British supermarkets, of trafficking, beatings and labour exploitation.

A high court judge ruled in favour of the victims and found the defendants, director Darrell Houghton and company secretary Jacqueline Judge, guilty of withholding wages and failing to ensure the workers had adequate living and working conditions.

The judge had “no doubt whatsoever” that the pair had knowingly caused the company to breach its legal obligations when they withheld pay and exploited the men.

“There is no iota of credible evidence that either defendants possessed an honest belief that what they were doing would not involve such a breach. At all material times, each knew exactly what he or she was doing.”

The men had worked excessive hours catching birds in chicken houses, were threatened with eviction and violence, and had their pay unlawfully withheld for arbitrary reasons like leaving a cup in the sink or drinking alcohol at home, the court found.

Mary Westmacott, a senior solicitor from law firm Leigh Day, who represented the claimants, said the ruling had implications for company officers and executives since they could now be made personally liable to pay damages if they exploited workers.

She said it is typically easier to show that a company was in breach of its obligations than to show that individuals were liable for their actions, and some exploitative bosses may use that to their advantage and shirk personal responsibility. Read more