Portadown firm failed to pay 143 employees proper wages

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A Portadown recruitment agency is among several Northern Ireland business ‘named and shamed’ for failing to pay employees their proper wages.

WH Recruitment, which had been used by a Romanian illegal gangmaster convicted of human trafficking, failed to pay wages worth more than £26k to 143 workers.

The firm, with an address in Hanover Street, was the fifth worst offender of more than 350 employers across Britain and Northern Ireland named yesterday for underpaying the national minimum or living wage.

According to the statistics issued by the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) more than 15,500 workers were underpaid more than £995,000 – with employers in hairdressing, hospitality and retail sectors the most prolific offenders.

In Northern Ireland, a total of 17 businesses failed to pay 219 workers more than £60,200.

They include Bennetts Seafood Bar & Grill in Warrenpoint, Co Down, which failed to pay £7,300 to 25 workers, and more than £1,400 owed to seven workers by Muldoon Transport Systems Ltd in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.

Last October WH Recruitment was caught up in a high-profile human trafficking court case after the firm was used by a Romanian gangmaster to exploit migrants.

There was no indication the firm knew of the exploits of those involved in the case.

Romanian national Ioan Lacatus pocketed the wages of migrants and kept them in a house in Portadown in degrading conditions that one victim described as “living like rats”.

Craigavon court heard the migrants were employed at various food businesses through WH Recruitment.

Their wages were being paid directly into the bank accounts of Lacatus and his wife Christina Nicoleta Covaci after they unknowingly gave permission in paperwork.

All of the companies were unaware of the exploitation, Craigavon Crown Court heard.

At the time WH director William Hunniford said he knew nothing about the court case, and that his business operates under “strict guidelines” with regular inspections.

The victims were transported to and from work by Lacatus and his brother-in-law Samuil Covaci, who police believe acted as a minder.

Twelve people were eventually ‘rescued’ after they contacted police in August 2014.

Lacatus (33), of Hanover Street, pleaded guilty to trafficking offences and received a two-and-a-half-year jail sentence.

Christina Covaci (31) was given a suspended prison sentence for connected offences, while Samuil Covaci (25), from Tandragee Road in Portadown, was handed a conditional discharge.

The list, published yesterday by the HM Revenue and Customs, included for the first time employers who failed to pay eligible workers the new national living wage of £7.20 an hour for those aged 25 and over.

As well as recovering arrears from employers, HMRC issued penalties worth around £800,000.

A spokesman for WH Recruitment told the BBC: “We are a registered agency and put our hands up. This was to do with the accommodation offset regulation.”

The National Living Wage rate is currently £7.20 for workers aged 25 and over.

Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire said: “Thanks to government investigations more than 15,500 of the UK’s lowest paid workers are to be back paid as we continue to build a Northern Ireland, and wider United Kingdom, that works for everyone.”

The British government’s business minister Margot James said they have “named and shamed” employers because workers are entitled to at least the national minimum or living wage.

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(Businesses underpaying national minimum wage - amount owed and number of employees affected)

1. WH Recruitment, Portadown – £26,418.67 (143)

2. Sean Bennett of Bennetts Seafood Bar & Grill, Warrenpoint – £7,300.15 (25)

3. Boran-Mopack Ltd, Strabane – £6,779.05 (1)

4. Margaret Danks of Shine Hair Company, Belfast – £5,811.95 (1)

5. Fusion Heating Ltd, Moneyreagh – £4,353.69 (2)

6. Rumour Espresso Bar, Armagh – £1,779.85 (5)

7. Muldoon Transport Systems Ltd, Dungannon – £1,468.25 (7)

8. Causeway Coach Hire, Ballymoney – £1,307.50 (10)

9. Sammy Mellon and Sons Ltd, Bangor – £1,236 (1)

10. BC Plant Ltd, Hillsborough – £1,180.63 (5)

11. Villa Italia, Belfast – £928.41 (1)

12. Sohan S Kular Ltd, Custom House Restaurant, Derry – £365.16 (9)

13. Mark & Lynne McDowell of McDowell’s Butchers, Carrickfergus – £359.49 (3)

14. McHenry’s Central Bar Ltd, Ballycastle – £330.24 (1)

15. Curran Court Hotel Ltd (previous owners), Larne – £282.88 (3)

16. Creativ3 Merchandise Ltd, Carrickfergus – £268.18 (1)

17. McGrady Ltd, Downpatrick – £113.33 (1)