A High Court judge has ruled 27 Portuguese workers who worked here on a road project are entitled to recover damages, estimated at some €1.5m,  plus interest, over breach of their employment contracts with three Portuguese companies that traded here as the RAC Éire partnership.

There should be no "race to the bottom" where rights and conditions of workers are concerned, Mr Justice David Keane said.

Among several findings, he ruled the firms engaged in "systematic and deliberate" under-recording of hours of work, leading to underpayment of the workers.

He also found the defendants were not entitled to deduct €17.50 daily (€520 monthly) from the workers' wages for accommodation of a "deplorable, even dangerous" standard.

That accommodation, for up to 150 workers over some 12 months, was an "unacceptably cramped" prefab "work camp" located in a slip road near the N7 Nenagh-Limerick road project, with "sub-standard and inadequate" sanitary arrangements and no drinking water.

The workers were entitled to recover the full sums of underpayment of wages, plus sums deducted for their accommodation, laundry and for "benefits in kind", plus interest from the date of their cause of action to now, he ruled.

The 27 workers sued three Portuguese companies - Rosas Construtores S.A; Construcoes Gabriel A.C. Couto S.A and Empresa Deconstrucores Amandio Carvalho S.A, trading as RAC Contractors and/or RAC Éire Partnership. 

RAC Éire traded here as a contractor or sub-contractor to a consortium, Bóthar Hibernian, comprising three companies - Mota-Engil (Portugal); Michael McNamara and Company and Coffey Construction Ltd.

The case arose after Limerick County Council awarded Bóthar Hibernian the public works contract to design and build the N7 Nenagh to Limerick dual carriageway.

Because the contracts provided the defendants would pay the workers in accordance with the Construction Industry Registered Employment Agreement, the defendants were contractually bound to abide by the terms of that agreement, the judge said.

The case was adjourned to 8 April to allow the sides consider the judgement. 

Based on the evidence, including from the workers and NERA, which interviewed the workers on foot of complaints from SIPTU, the judge found the workers were not paid in accordance with the contract for all the hours they worked. He also ruled the firms were not entitled to deduct €17.50 daily for accommodation or €3.75 for the laundry services provided. 

The defendants had provided no explanations for deductions under a "benefit in kind" heading from wages of several plaintiffs and at the end of the case said they were not standing over those deductions, he noted.

The judge ruled the board or food provided to the workers was of a reasonable standard, the defendants were entitled to deduct for that and refused damages under that heading.

The exact sum of damages will be decided later. Three similar case are pending.