Modern Slavery – UK company found using trafficked labour ordered to compensate workers

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In the first civil case of its type, the High Court has found a UK company liable to pay compensation to Lithuanian workers who had been trafficked to the UK and forced to live and work in degrading conditions for very little pay. The men worked in supply chains producing free range eggs for a number of household name restaurants and supermarkets.

The owners of the company attempted to place the blame for the mens’ treatment on a Lithuanian supervisor who allegedly threatened the men with fighting dogs and told them they would be evicted if they complained. The Court held, unsurprisingly, that the directors could not evade responsibility by blaming a rogue supervisor.

Whilst modern slavery is often viewed as a more of an issue for developing economies, this case illustrates that the UK is not immune from such abuses. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 (the Act) requires businesses with a turnover or group turnover of more than £36m to take steps to ensure that modern slavery and trafficking do not exist in supply chains.  Businesses not directly in the scope of the Act are advised, nevertheless, to take reasonable steps to ensure that supply chains are ‘clean’.  This is especially important given the obvious reputational and commercial consequences of becoming linked or associated with a case such as this. The key message is that senior management must ensure they have overall visibility over the ‘human element’ of business and supply chain operations.