A group of joiners who worked through harsh winter weather to complete a contract have been left thousands of pounds out of pocket.
Their wages have disappeared somewhere in a web of employment agencies and payroll firms that are typical of the nightmare world of so-called umbrella working.
“We’re owed more than £15,000,” said Paul Robinson from Sheffield.
“The job was advertised at £21 an hour by employment agency Worker Direct, but we only got £8.75 an hour.
“I later discovered that the joinery firm had only agreed to pay £17 an hour, so we were never going to get £21. In hindsight I should have known, because no one would pay £21 an hour for local joiners. We were ripped off.”
His colleague Martin Fey added: “We worked in a snowstorm for three days. We spent more on accommodation, food and diesel than we got paid, which has put me in arrears with my gas, electricity and council tax.”
The joiners were working at a holiday centre in Skegness, but the company paying their wages was joinery business David Green Limited.
The company that advertised the posts was Worker Direct Limited, run by Karl Fairbrother of Warrington, Lancs.
The wages were paid to labour market consultants Outsauce Financing Limited, while the payroll was managed by yet another company, NMW Contracting Limited.
“I’m confused myself, mate,” admitted Paul.
Joinery company director David Green said that he told Worker Direct the rate was £17 hourly, never £21.
“I would send the hours worked to Worker Direct, and Outsauce would invoice me. I would then pay Outsauce,” he explained.
“Paul is correct, they were ripped off. I’m happy to go anywhere including court to help them.”
Payroll firm NWM Contracting, which took a weekly £34.50 cut of the wages, said: “All monies were paid as directed by Outsauce. None were withheld.”
Richard Foster, Outsauce director, blamed Karl Fairbrother of Worker Direct for the problems.
“I can confirm that Outsauce provided an invoice facility to Worker Direct,” he said.
“As soon as we were made aware of Mr Fairbrother’s attempts to withhold monies from the candidates, we contacted the intermediary company involved and demanded they make immediate payment.
“ We considered Mr Fairbrother’s actions to be completely inappropriate and a breach of our agreement. We therefore terminated the agreement with immediate effect.
“Outsauce had no involvement in any wrongdoing.”
I offered to send the emails I’d received setting out the complaint to Mr Fairbrother, 44, but he said there was no point because Worker Direct had ceased trading.
He insisted that he was not familiar with Mr Robinson’s case, or why the workers received just £8.75 an hour.
“I did not deal with that job, it could have been other people at my company," he said.
“The only thing I can put it down to is that sometimes we have variations in rates of pay – a minimum and maximum.
“Perhaps he saw the maximum and thought that’s what he would get paid,” he said. “The business has now gone so there’s not much I can do.”
A video of Mr Fairbrother can still be found online, which might prove bitterly ironic, because in it he promises skilled workers: “Here at Worker Direct we want to give you every single penny you work for.
“So why not give yourself a higher wage, advertise yourself locally and nationally and all without the interruption of an agency putting their hand in your pocket?”
Unite the Union has condemned complex “umbrella” contracts that exploit
“Umbrella companies appear to be deliberately making payslips as confusing as possible in order to befuddle workers and hide how much money is being taken from their wages,” said assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail.
“There is absolutely no benefit for workers to be paid via an umbrella company. All the advantage is with employers who avoid paying their share of national insurance contributions, and holiday and pension provision.
“If the Government had any sense of moral decency it would outlaw umbrella companies tomorrow.”
Cases like these remind me of another one I highlighted earlier this year, involving pipe-fitter Russ Blakely, who won an employment tribunal after being denied basic rights such as holiday pay, and employer’s national insurance contributions were unlawfully deducted from his wages.
He had been employed through a contractor and a recruitment agency, with his wages coming through a separate payroll company.
“I was working for an NHS hospital but there were four companies between me and the hospital, all taking a cut of what is taxpayer’s money,” he said.
“There are all these layers and it needs to be asked: what are they doing that’s of any value?”
Seems like a good question.
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