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Northern Ireland employers failing to pay minimum wage revealed

Ioan Lacatus who was jailed for human trafficking offences
Brendan Hughes

A RECRUITMENT agency used by a Romanian gangmaster for human trafficking is among a host of Northern Ireland businesses caught failing to pay hundreds of employees their proper wages.

WH Recruitment in Portadown, Co Armagh, failed to pay wages worth more than £26,000 to 143 workers.

It 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.

Overall 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.

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

Ioan Lacatus pocketed their wages and kept them in a house in Portadown in degrading conditions that one victim described as "living like rats".

The 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 British government 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.

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)

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