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Since March, Rob Kelly has been trying to get somebody to care about plumbers and apprentices on a student-accommodation building site being – he says – underpaid.

Once finished, Printing House Square should offer 250 beds for students, plans show. The project, which is being overseen by Bennett Construction Limited, is being built on the former site of Oisín House on Pearse Street, for Trinity College Dublin.

Kelly, a regional organiser for the union Unite, has collected payslips from apprentice and qualified plumbers working for subcontractor GMG Mechanical. These show hourly rates between €2 to €3 lower than they’re legally supposed to be, he says.

“We can’t have workers out there working for the rates of pay,” Kelly says. “It’ll undermine the industry for everyone.”

Gregory McGrory, director of GMG Mechanical, did not respond to emailed questions this week, or requests left with the receptionists to speak on the phone, about how many apprentices the company employed on the site, their hourly pay, their overtime pay and deductions for tools.

However, after months of efforts by Kelly to raise the issue, Trinity College Dublin has appointed the former chair of the Labour Court, Kevin Duffy, to investigate the allegations.

Duffy will review “all documentation provided by BCL/GMG” before he advises on the “appropriate next steps”, a spokesperson for the college said on Tuesday.

“We stress that the claims made against BCL remain claims only at this point,” they said.

Trinity has decided to “appoint an independent consultant to ensure they are complying with legislation and to underline our sincere commitment to ensuring all workers on the project are treated fairly,’’ the spokesperson said.

Raising the Issue

Kelly, the Unite organiser, says apprentices complained to him about their pay when he visited the site in late February.

It’s typical for Unite to call out to construction sites and check on the welfare of workers, he says.

Since March, he has raised the issue with the GMG Mechanical, the subcontractor; with the main contractor, Bennett Construction Limited; with the Construction Industry Federation (CIF); and with numerous staff at Trinity.

Kelly says he made contact with someone working for GMG Mechanical and was called back by someone who said the subcontractor would not meet with him.

But he did get a response from Trinity’s chief operating officer, Geraldine Ruane, on 15 March.

“We have concluded,” the email said, “that GMGMSL (GMG Mechanical Services Limited) has provided the necessary assurances to BCL (Bennett Construction Limited) as their employers that they are in compliance and this includes written confirmation from the Construction Workers Pension Scheme with regards to staff currently registered on the scheme.”

Kelly emailed back on 15 March, requesting a meeting to “illustrate the opposite to be the case”.

But on 20 March, Ruane responded: “As you are aware, Trinity is not the employer of the workers concerned. In this regard, Trinity cannot involve itself in industrial relations matters or disputes relating to employees.”

“We believe BCL has provided the necessary assurances on compliance,” Ruane wrote.

On 11 July, Unite organisers protested outside Trinity College. On 12 July, Kelly and Unite’s regional officer for construction, Tom Fitzgerald, got a meeting with college officials, Kelly says.

Kelly says he was told that the college would collect the necessary information from contractor Bennett Construction to establish that subcontractor GMG Mechanical were paying their workers the legally-set rates of pay.

They met again on 21 July, he says, and he was told the college was still receiving information from Bennett Construction.

Trinity College Dublin spokesperson said on Tuesday: “We received claims from Unite on July 12 that GMG Mechanical was not paying the correct rates of pay to staff working on our Printing House Square project.

“Trinity subsequently requested [Bennett Construction] furnish the University with information confirming compliance and are currently waiting on complete information to assess the claims.”

On Monday, Kelly said the appointment of Kevin Duffy to also investigate the issue is good news, but said he’s concerned about lengthening the process.

On Some Payslips

A payslip dated 22 February shows the rate of pay for one apprentice to be €5.74 per hour. Another payslip for this person dated 14 June, shows that it had risen to €6.30 an hour, still well below the €7.57 apprentices are entitled to under what’s known as a sectoral employment order.

By June, GMG Mechanical had also signed the apprentice up to an employer pension contribution scheme, as stipulated by the sectoral employment order, which states the rates of pay, sick pay, and pensions in a sector.

The apprentice hadn’t been signed up in February – at least not according to the payslip from that month.

Apprentices have to provide their own hand tools, but the employer has to provide power tools, says Kelly.

GMG Mechanical deducted €50 from the apprentice’s pay, with the 14 June payslip noting “ToolsDduct”. GMG Mechanical did not reply to a query about what tools this deduction was for.

Meanwhile, a qualified plumber who began working on the site in June is getting €18 an hour, according to payslips from the 7 and 14 June.

But the rate of pay for a first-year qualified plumber is €22.73 an hour, according to the sectoral employment order. For plumbers with more experience, that rate goes up further.

“Trinity College is meant to be the most prestigious place of education in the country,” says Kelly. “We have apprentices in there that are meant to be getting a good training, a good education in plumbing.”

Under the Contract

Bennett Construction’s contract with Trinity College Dublin is called a public works contract for building works designed by the contractor or PW-CF2, according to the memorandum of contract.

Public contracts like these list an employer’s obligations, to ensure compliance by the contractor. The sub-contractor is bound by the same rules.

There’s a certificate the contractor has to sign, too, which states that employees are receiving the correct rates of pay and work conditions.

If a contractor doesn’t? “Ultimately the contractor may be held to be in breach of contract which can lead to termination,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, in response to general queries about the rules rather than any specific case.

Bennett Construction didn’t respond to queries sent by email on Friday, asking if they were aware of the dispute between Unite and GMG Mechanical, and whether the employer had registered mechanical workers on the employee pension scheme.

The queries also asked if Bennett was able to confirm that employees were being paid their wages and overtime in accordance to the sectoral employment order for mechanical workers.

Attracting Apprentices

Solas, the state’s further-education and training body, register employers and apprentices.

Employers have to sign up to a code of practice, which outlines the responsibilities of apprentices and employers.

Terms and wages are set by industry bodies, said a spokesperson for Solas on Tuesday.

“If an apprentice has an issue with the terms and conditions of their apprenticeship, they should contact their apprenticeship advisor in their [Education Training Board] in the first place,” they said.

A 2017 report by the CIF and Solas says Ireland needs more apprentices to plug a shortage of skills in the construction industry.

“There needs to be an urgent ramping up of apprenticeship registrations if the industry is to have the capacity to deliver in line with policy targets,” the report says.

Apprentices need to be attracted to an industry that leads by example, says Kelly. “One of the ways of doing is by paying them well and treating them properly.”

Aura McMenamin is a city reporter.

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