By Ana-Maria Cirstea and Dora-Olivia Vicol - 24 May 2020
A Romanian man in his mid-thirties, Alex* came to the UK in 2018 together with his wife. He had spent years working on a cruise ship, traveling the world and doing every hospitality job there was, until a friend beckoned him to come to the UK. But like so many young people who rebuild their lives abroad, he is constantly learning something new. Within his first few months in London, Alex picked up a new trade as a plumber. He had a family to feed. His wife had recently given birth to a little girl, and they were happy to share a lively house with a few of their friends. This is how, looking to make a better future for himself, he met Dani - a charismatic entrepreneur ‘who could convince you to do anything’.
In the space of a few months, Dani turned from friend to fraudster. An imaginative crook, he ran a merry-go-round of companies which likely committed tax evasion by declaring sky-high wages for workers who, in fact, he stopped paying at all. On one hand, working on Alex’s case provided an insight into the abundant creativity of the criminal mind. More seriously however, the months we spent chasing Dani’s web of companies revealed that, even when the judge rules in their favour, workers like Alex face a long, tortuous journey through enforcement.
When friends turn into fraudsters
Alex first encountered Dani when he started working at a plumbing agency. A supervisor at the firm, within several weeks Dani coached him how to ascend the agency ladder, and earn a decent pay by becoming a supervisor himself. After a few months of working together, Dani hired Alex as a project manager in his own construction business. It seemed an ‘innovative shindig’, with a potential to revolutionise how building projects are delivered. A generous salary of £6,000 allowed Alex to live comfortably and provide for his wife and newborn daughter. Until the cracks started to show.
Within four months, Alex discovered that he was employed in a company which was part of a wider group of firms set up by Dani. He received his wages from an unknown bank account. Then one day, Dani vanished into thin air altogether. He had failed to pay Alex his monthly salary, leaving him unable to pay his costly rent and cover the expenses of having a newborn baby. This is when, unsure how to proceed, in June 2019 Alex decided to seek help from the Work Rights Centre.
A merry-go-round of companies
Our colleague who led on Alex’s case vividly describes his employment situation as a merry-go-round. While his contract of employment listed him as working for one firm, his pay slip referred to another. His wages, in turn, were paid from a bank account linked to a third firm, completely unrelated.
Calling the HMRC Employee helpline, our advisers discovered that Dani had declared paying Alex an amount significantly higher than his actual rate of pay. Upon finding this, we forwarded Alex’s payslips and bank account statements to HMRC, setting a tax fraud investigation into motion.
Since Alex has the required language and digital skills, our team encouraged him to submit a series of claims to ACAS himself. The claims described the ‘merry-go-round’ of all three firms and sought further guidance. With Dani in hiding and the mediation unsuccessful, he decided to go one step further. We do not provide legal advice and could not advise for, or against his decision. But once Alex had made up his mind, we assisted him in the mandatory steps. In summary, Alex made a claim to the Employment Tribunal, amounting to £5,850 for unpaid wages and holiday pay.
The long road from ruling to enforcement
Nearly a month after making his claim, Alex received a notice to appear in court. With help from an employment solicitor, our case workers diligently assisted him in preparing the necessary documents and supporting evidence. However, about a month later Alex received a second notification cancelling his hearing altogether. Somewhat expectedly, his employer, Dani, failed to respond. The judge thus invoked the so-called ‘Rule 21’, whereby if one of the parties fails to respond in 28 days’ time, the case can be judged ‘by default’ in the absence of a hearing. Alex did not need to appear in court and received the judge’s decision by mail: Dani was required to pay him £5,000, covering the unpaid wages and other compensations for his rights as a worker. And yet, there was still a long way to go.
Following the judgement, Dani was legally granted 45 days to respond to the tribunal’s decision. Still, nothing. By this point, it was already January 2020 - seven months had passed since Alex first contacted our team. Once the 45 days were up, we helped him fill in a form with more information required by the enforcement body to recuperate his pay. Once again, nothing. In May 2020, the enforcement body contacted Alex to confirm that no one was found at Dani’s last known address. They requested a new address, but the glimmer of hope we harboured knowing that two of Dani’s companies remained active, got fainter when we learnt that bailiffs would postpone any further investigation until after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite his victory at the Employment Tribunal, Alex’s case remains unsolved to this date. The case worker leading the case, Adelina, is sceptical that the enforcement body will be able to locate Dani and help Alex get the money he rightfully earned. Dani appears to have involved many others in his scams, making Alex only one piece of the puzzle.
We cannot let a shaky system undermine workers’ hope for justice
Alex’s long and complicated case illustrates just how many barriers lie between receiving a favourable judgement, and retrieving what’s rightfully yours in practice. For people like him who are determined to fight for their rights, we can offer no guarantees, even after a claim is won at the Employment Tribunal. And, we must remember, Alex has the relative privilege of speaking good English, having a good level of IT literacy, and a supportive family by his side. Most of the men and women who visit our clinic are not as lucky. Imagine how much harder it is for them to push on, knowing the fatigue and stress that come with having an ongoing case.
These uncertain prospects leave us with a bittersweet taste. As Adelina frankly explains: ‘If we add up all our successful claims on paper, we got a fat stack of money back. But our customers’ pockets remain empty.’
We cannot let these glitches in the enforcement system dissuade vulnerable workers from standing up to justice. There is a real risk that these prolonged timelines leave them unwilling to make their claims, even when they note that, in theory, the law is on their side. Many of them treat months of unpaid wages as ‘just another slap to the face’. Relying on proverbial hard work and ambition, they look for new jobs and do everything in their power to make ends meet. They choose to forget the wages they lost over the years, in the hope of one day ‘making it’. The individual spirit of hard-work and self-reliance is admirable. It should not have to replace employment justice.← Case Studies