Workers at Ethically-Raised Chicken Farms Apparently Victims of Human Trafficking

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REUTERS/Nigel Roddis

Chickens run in snow at Sinnington, northern England.

In a horrifying and ridiculously ironic tale of abuse and misbehavior, a British company licensed by the RSPCA’s Freedom Food program to work on poultry farms is allegedly guilty of human rights violations. Local police, together with the U.K. Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) and the British agency that regulates agricultural industry employees, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), revealed in October that workers at one company that helped to collect ethically raised chickens were apparently themselves victims of human trafficking and beatings.

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The company, which cannot be named for legal reasons as the criminal investigation continues, helped to provide eggs to McDonalds as well as leading British supermarkets. It had its gangmasters license revoked last week by the GLA after allegations that it kept workers in debt bondage,  among a series of other claims, according to a report in the Guardian.

According to the RSPCA website, Freedom Food is “the only UK farm assurance scheme to focus solely on improving the welfare of farm animals reared for food.”

Kent police arrested two individuals from the company earlier in October, and a spokeswoman for the police confirmed to TIME that they were released on bail until April 5 2013. She added that the criminal investigation continues into trafficking offenses allegedly committed by the pair. Neither have been been charged.

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The arrest came after allegations that workers at the factory were being kept in slave-like conditions. Kent police confirm that roughly 29 Lithuanian men have been identified as human trafficking victims as part of their investigation. As Lithuanian nationals, the workers are in fact entitled to work in the UK as they are part of the European Union.  However it is believed they were forcibly kept under control by other Lithuanian enforcers with threats of physical violence.

The workers reportedly said that they had been told that these would be well-paid jobs back in Lithuania, but  earned substantially less than what they were first told after deductions, taking in less than $150 a week.

Responding to the Guardian’s questions, RSPCA Freedom Food explained that while there are currently no labor rights provisions in its license terms, “should these shocking allegations regarding workers prove to be true then Freedom Food would enact this provision.”

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