Guest workers claim their rights were violated
Some of the complaints
The more egregious complaints levied at Burt’s Top Grade Contracting include that the owner, Germaine Burt:
— Intimidated, threatened and verbally abused employees.
— Forced employees to sleep on cots in a hallway upon arrival to Bermuda
— Charged employees nearly $5,000 for a $2,200 apartment.
— Did not provide toilets on job sites.
— Forced employees to work 11-hour shifts, six days a week.
— Discouraged employees from being religious.
— Discouraged relationships with Bermudians.
— Never paid sick, vacation or public holiday pay.
— Frequently failed to pay social insurance and healthcare coverage.
Four guest workers who allege a construction boss fired them without cause have taken their fight to Government.
The men, who are all Jamaican, have filed complaints with the Department of Labour, the Human Rights Commission and the Department of Immigration claiming that their employer, Germaine Burt, breached several sections of the Employment Act and Human Rights Act, violated their civil rights and grossly mistreated them before they were wrongfully dismissed.
They insist they didn’t receive sick, public holiday or vacation pay while employees of Burt’s Top Grade Contracting (BTG), and their social insurance wasn’t always paid.
The men lost their jobs at BTG on March 27, when Mr Burt handed them letters stating they were being let go due to an “unexpected drop-off in business due to the faltering economy”.
The four came forward to The Royal Gazette saying nine guest workers in all were affected, but that they were the only ones willing to speak about it publicly. They say they are owed redundancy pay, more than a week’s wages and back pay for sick, holiday and vacation time they never received in all the years they worked for BTG.
The men presented a variety of documents to this newspaper, including payslips and a statement of employment drawn up by Mr Burt that states there would be no paid vacation or sick leave even after one year of continuous employment. Some of their payslips even show that BTG deducted from their pay when time off was taken.
“That’s illegal,” said Juliana Snelling, a leading Bermuda employment attorney we consulted at Canterbury Law. “Section two of the Employment Act says an agreement to waive the requirements of the act is of no effect. The whole purpose of the act was to set minimum statutory requirements of entitlements.”
The Act states that every employee, foreign or Bermudian, who has completed one year of continuous employment is entitled to eight paid sick days, two weeks’ paid vacation and public holidays paid at an overtime rate if they have to work (or to be paid straight time and get an alternative day off). Employers can contract out of holiday pay, but not out of sick and vacation pay.
The men, who worked for Mr Burt for four to seven years, were paid anywhere from $22 to $24 per hour throughout the course of their employment. One payslip, for example, shows one of the men worked a 53-hour week for a total of $1,272. But after deductions for social insurance, payroll tax, healthcare and rent, as well as a deduction for a week of vacation, the man’s take-home pay was $728.18.
The Royal Gazette has also obtained documents from the Bermuda Department of Social Insurance that show hundreds of weeks’ worth of social insurance payments were not paid on behalf of the men, although their pay stubs reflect weekly deductions of $30.40.
The documents, obtained through the Social Insurance online database, show one of the men, who worked for BTG for five years, had 113 weeks of unpaid social insurance. Another showed a total of 74 weeks unpaid. A third man had records showing 71 weeks of unpaid social insurance over a five-year period and two years of documentation were missing altogether.
“Absolutely it’s illegal. Payroll tax for everyone, social insurance for everyone,” Ms Snelling said. “It’s all up to Government and how much they are enforcing the law. If the employer deducted it and did not pass it on to Government, that makes it worse — akin to theft.”
The men are now pursuing legal action against BTG and Mr Burt.
The Royal Gazette made several attempts to contact Mr Burt for his response but no one answered, nor did anyone return our calls. We also contacted Mr Burt’s attorney, but got no response.
Attorneys for the men have called on Government to allow their clients to stay in Bermuda and seek alternative employment whilst they seek justice, but The Royal Gazette has just learned that request has been denied. Immigration has instructed three of the four men to leave the Island by June 29. The fourth, who has a Bermudian child, has been granted permission to reside and seek employment until August 3 of this year.
Attorneys for the men contend the men should be able to stay and fight because they say this case is about more than money — that the mistreatment went beyond the financial issues.
“This isn’t simply a case of us trying to get monies back for these gentlemen that was not paid to them. It’s much bigger than that,” said Nancy Vieira, an attorney for Amicus Law. “Our concern is what comes after that. It’s how these men were treated. It goes against their basic human rights. We have to use this case as a precedence to make necessary changes.”
* The construction company in this story is in no way related or connected to Burt Construction.
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