Judge moves to progress hearing of Turkish workers’ €40m claim

Nearly 500 Gama workers seek compensation for breach of contract and breach of duty

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

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

 

A High Court judge has made directions aimed at progressing the hearing of actions by 491 Turkish workers over alleged underpayment of more than €40 million in wages and benefits while working here on State contracts.

Ms Justice Teresa Pilkington refused to halt 160 of the claims and also refused, at this stage, to enter judgment for more than €40 million against two companies in the Gama group in favour of the workers.

She refused judgment for reasons including her findings the workers’ claims have not yet been set out in sufficient detail.

While she appreciated the difficulties in dealing with such a large number of plaintiffs, especially as most live in Turkey and don’t speak English, certain particulars must be provided, she said.

The workers had sought judgment on grounds of delay by the companies in filing a defence.

The judge made directions for certain particulars to be provided after which a defence must be filed. The companies sought to have about 160 of the claims struck out on grounds the workers involved had allegedly entered into earlier settlement agreements.

Modular hearing

The judge refused a strike out but has directed a modular hearing to address issues concerning whether the alleged earlier settlement agreements prevented those plaintiffs proceeding or whether those alleged agreements were procured under duress and/or undue influence.

The workers have sued two companies: Gama Endustri Tesisleri Imalat Ve Montaj AS (Gama Turkey) and its wholly owned Irish company, Gama Construction Ireland Ltd.

They want more than €40.3 million compensation for alleged breach of contract and breach of duty plus exemplary damages over how their wages were allegedly withheld and/or how their employment was terminated when they made complaints.

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

Gama employed 1,066 people here 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 to €3 per hour, in breach of the minimum wage law.

‘Grotesque’ hours

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 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 ultimately 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 only for the purpose of challenging the Irish courts’ jurisdiction to deal with it.

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