Workers robbed while regulatory agency wrings its hands

The Pensions Board has just published its Annual Report predictably accompanied by the usual hand wringing (RTE, 3rd report, 1st item).

There are two principal aspects to the report – risky investment in shares and property that have resulted in serious losses and major theft which has been going on since the 1960s.

The media has focused almost entirely on the risky investment aspect; the ongoing theft is largely ignored.

By law, pension contributions must be deducted from workers salaries and paid into the Construction Workers’ Pension Scheme. Instead of paying into the scheme a great many employers are keeping the money for themselves.

Not only is this stealing from their employees but it also leaves employees and their families exposed should there be an accident or death.

In 2004 the Irish Examiner reported that up to 50,000 construction employees were being cheated of their pension and sickness benefits worth an estimated €35m annually.

In 2006 Socialist TD Joe Higgins estimated the theft from workers at €120 million per year.

Either way, we are talking about the theft of significant amounts of money. So what does the chief executive of the Pensions Board, Brendan Kennedy, have to say about the matter?

I see it as theft, we don’t prosecute under the Theft Act but there’s no question, it’s taking money that belongs to people.

And what are the consequences?

For the workers involved, as far as possible, it’s our top priority to make sure the employer pays up.

Unfortunately, for a large number of these employers given the state the construction industry the money may not be there.

This exchange is worth a closer look.

It’s theft but we don’t prosecute under the Theft Act.

The theft has been going on since the 1960s and, to my knowledge, not a single construction boss has been charged under the Theft Act.

If true, this failure to prosecute under the Theft Act, effectively acts as a protection for thieving construction bosses.

It’s our top priority to make sure the employer pays up.

This stance is very similar to that taken by the so called Financial Regulator. So long as the robbed money is returned no further action is thought necessary.

This, in effect, is an admission by a so called state regulatory agency that wholesale theft by employers is not really a serious matter.

Unfortunately, for a large number of these employers, given the state the construction industry, the money may not be there.

The suggestion here seems to be that nothing can be done to an employer who steals from his employees if that employer hits hard times – in other words theft from workers seems to be an acceptable money saving strategy.

Later on in the year the Pensions Ombudsman, Paul Kenny, will be publishing his annual report. Kenny is a parrot of the Pensions Board boss, he too knows workers are being robbed but just wrings his hands when it comes to making the thieves accountable.

Here’s what he had to say in 2006.

Employers have actually been deducting contributions from the wages of employees and not paying on to the scheme and that, quite frankly, is theft.

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