A High Court judge has ruled 27 Portuguese workers who worked here on a road project are entitled to recover damages, estimated at some €1.5m, plus interest, over breach of their employment contracts with three Portuguese companies that traded here as the RAC Éire partnership.
There should be no "race to the bottom" where rights and conditions of workers are concerned, Mr Justice David Keane said.
Among several findings, he ruled the firms engaged in “systematic and deliberate” underrecording of hours of work, leading to underpayment of the workers in breach of their employment contracts.
He also found the defendants were not entitled to deduct €17.50 daily (€520 monthly) from the workers’ wages for accommodation of a “deplorable, even dangerous” standard.
That accommodation, for up to 150 workers over some 12 months, was an “unacceptably cramped” prefab “work camp” located in a slip road near the N7 Nenagh-Limerick road project, with “sub-standard and inadequate” sanitary arrangements and no drinking water.
A witness had told the court the standard of accommodation in prisons was superior to that provided to these workers, the judge noted.
The workers were entitled to recover the full sums of underpayment of wages, plus sums deducted for their accommodation, laundry and for “benefits in kind”, plus interest form the date of their cause of action to now.
The 27 workers sued three Portuguese companies — Rosas Construtores S.A; Construcoes Gabriel A.C. Couto S.A and Empresa Deconstrucores Amandio Carvalho S.A, trading as RAC Contractors and/or RAC Eire Partnership.
RAC Éire traded here as a contractor or sub-contractor to a consortium, Bothar Hibernian, comprising three companies — Mota-Engil (Portugal); Michael McNamara and Company and Coffey Construction Ltd.
The case arose after Limerick County Council awarded Bothar Hibernian the public works contract to design and build the N7 Nenagh to Limerick dual carriageway.
The workers — 26 construction workers and one cleaner -were employed under contracts with the defendants between 2007 and 2009. The contracts involved deductions of €15 daily for board, €17.50 for lodging and €3.75 daily for a laundry service. Hours of work were stated as from 8.30am to 5pm Monday to Thursday and 8.30am to 4pm on Fridays with the workers to work overtime if asked.
Because the contracts provided the defendants would pay the workers in accordance with the construction industry registered employment agreement, the defendants were contractually bound to abide by the terms of that agreement, the judge said.
He accepted evidence the workers were told a “quite different” version of the contracts by the defendants’ representatives, including they would be paid some €1,350 monthly and their accommodation, board, laundry and transport provided free. The contracts were written in English, a language most of the workers could not read or speak.
He concluded "reluctantly but firmly", on the balance of probabilities, the defendants designed and procured the execution of the written contracts for the unlawful purpose of circumventing Irish employment and public procurement law and to conceal from the National Employee Rights Authority (NERA)and Limerick County Council, that RAC Eire did not intend to adhere to the relevant law.
The road project was clearly subject to public procurement rules and public works contract require contractors and nominated sub-contractors to ensure the pay and conditions of all workers complied with all applicable law, he said.
The defendants’ intention to treat as “a sham” the clauses of the contracts on pay and permissible deductions from wages did not mean the workers could not enforce those contracts, he said.
Based on the evidence, including from the workers and NERA, which interviewed the workers on foot of complaints from Siptu, the judge found the workers were not paid in accordance with the contract for all the hours they worked. He also ruled the firms were not entitled to deduct €17.50 daily for accommodation or €3.75 for the laundry services provided.
He noted evidence of employees working from 7am until well after 6pm on weekdays, including up to 8pm and well after noon on Saturdays. The NERA obtained information on foot of which it calculated total arrears due to between 160-180 of the defendants employees as just under €3m but, based on the evidence, he considered that underpayment calculation “conservative”.
The defendants had provided no explanations for deductions under a “benefit in kind” heading from wages of several plaintiffs and had, at the end of the case, said they were not seeking to stand over those deductions, he noted.
The judge ruled the board or food provided to the workers was of a reasonable standard, the defendants were entitled to deduct for that and refused damages undert that heading.
The case was adjourned to April 8th to allow the sides consider the judgment. The exact sum of damages will be decided later. Three similar case are pending.