Gama Construction workers’ case back before High Court

Dispute concerns alleged underpayment of €40m to Turkish building workers

Gama workers protesting outside the Dáil in 2005.  Photograph: Eric Luke

Gama workers protesting outside the Dáil in 2005. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

A long-running legal battle over alleged underpayment of more than €40 million in wages and benefits to 491 Turkish workers who were working in Ireland on State contracts has returned to the High Court.

The workers have sued two companies – Gama Endustari Tesisleri Imalat Montaj AS (Gama Turkey) and its wholly-owned Irish company, Gama Construction Ireland Ltd. They want more than €40.3 million in compensation and damages for alleged breach of contract and breach of duty and exemplary damages over how their wages were allegedly withheld and/or how their employment was terminated when they made complaints.

The defendants oppose the judgment application and have brought motions seeking to halt the claims of 160 workers and to have the court strictly case manage the others.

The cases arise as a result of the involvement from 2000 of both Gama companies in National Development Programme infrastructural works here.

Gama employed 1,066 people in the State in 2003 and had 927 permits for workers from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment when a dispute over wages erupted in 2005.

In February 2005, Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins told the Dáil that Gama “imports” workers from Turkey and paid them about €2-€3 per hour, in breach of the minimum wage law. The workers were required to work “grotesque” hours, were accommodated in company barracks and their situation was a modern version of “bonded labour”, he alleged.

The then minister for enterprise, Micheál Martin, who said his department had been assured by Gama Ireland that all provisions of Irish employment law would be observed and the “going rate” would be paid to all Turkish workers, ordered its labour inspectorate to investigate the claims.

After Gama Turkey resisted publication of the inspector’s report, the Supreme Court ruled in 2009 there were no powers of general publication of the report and only State bodies with a criminal prosecutorial function could see it.

The two companies had entered an appearance in the workers’ case for the purpose of challenging the Irish courts’ jurisdiction to deal with the case.

Pursue claims

The Court of Appeal ruled in 2015 the workers were entitled to pursue their claims in the High Court. In those circumstances, various pre-trial applications came before Ms Justice Pilkington on Thursday.

Patrick Kean SC, for the workers, said there is a dispute over how the settlements concerning 160 plaintiffs came about and whether those involved were coerced into settling.

Issues had also been raised about the deaths of some plaintiffs, he noted. The defendants are not following appropriate procedures and have yet to lodge a defence in the proceedings, he said.

In the circumstances, it would be inappropriate to have the defendants bid to halt the 160 claims dealt with as a preliminary issue and the claims should proceed to a full hearing, he argued.

The court could determine 12 claims representative of the 391 workers not alleged to have settled, and perhaps two other claims representative of those whom the defence claimed had reached settlements, he suggested.

The delay in having the cases decided was adversely affecting the workers and their position has been worsened further by the fall in value of the Turkish lira, he added.

Mark Connaughton SC, for the defendants, said his side was not seeking to move some kind of preliminary issue point without evidence. The “very short” statement of claim in this case effectively set out a summary judgment claim for 491 plaintiffs without detailing the precise components of that for each individual plaintiff, he said. It is not possible to deliver any kind of meaningful defence until the claims are properly particularised, he said.

Ms Justice Pilkington will rule next week concerning how the cases will proceed.