Workers in 'give us our cash' plea
FN News Editor
Two years after they were terminated, workers of the Home Centre and Freeport Concrete Company Limited are still fighting for the money they say is owed to them.
A group of 19 ex-employees expressed disappointment and frustration over treatment they have received over the last 27 months.
In fact, they say on the day they were axed, June 21, 2010, all 70 of them were given a letter signed by the then chief executive officer Raymond Simpson which cited the "continuous financial decline of the company" as the reason.
"I regret to inform that the company is now out of cash and is unable to continue to operate. Accordingly, the company has no choice but to terminate the employment of all members of staff, save for a small custodial staff which shall be retained pending the appointment of a liquidator," the letter stated in part.
The termination was with immediate effect and was accompanied by a check for salary up until that day.
The letter also stated that once a liquidator had been appointed, an attempt would be made to sell the assets of the company and, "if possible," the now former workers would be paid what they were entitled to under the law.
A liquidator had been appointed, but the group maintains that that did not happen and they have yet to hear anything from anyone about the money which is legally owed to them.
"We didn't get any severance pay, no vacation, no maternity leave nothing," they said.
The building, which is owned by Austrian-born businessman Hannes Babak, was leased to Simpson for the operation of the Home Centre and Freeport Concrete.
The 19 men and women said there were signs the business wasn't doing good but the way it was shut down was unexpected.
Triska Joseph who worked at Home Centre said they were assured by the Labour Department that the money that was derived from the sale of the merchandise and material after the liquidation process would pay off the workers first, not the supplier or the financial institution.
But since then, they have been jockeying between the Labour Department who has informed them that it is out of their hands and referred them to the Industrial Tribunal which has advised them to anticipate a call from the Labour Department.
Melissa Mills, who was employed at Freeport Concrete, pointed out that some of them have worked at the company for as much as 14 years and they have been disadvantaged as a number of them were the breadwinner in the family.
While for some finding employment elsewhere occurred three months later, others are still without work.
George Anderson was employed at Freeport Concrete for 10 years and suffered a heart attack five months later which, he believes, had a lot to do with the stress of losing his job.
"I think it was a blow in our face. We were treated worse than a dog, not even a Bahamian. Like a pot cake or something," he said.
The group also noted that their national insurance contribution was being deducted from their salary nine months prior to them being terminated, but was not applied to their national insurance accounts.
According to Mills, it would cost the group an $8,000 retainer fee for a lawyer and $400 per hour to take on their case, which could last a minimum of three months.
"If we're out of a job, we can't afford that. We wanted to have legal representation but it was hard getting everybody together because a lot of people weren't working at the time," she said.
"Because it is a publicly shared company, you don't know who to sue."
Mills pointed out that the government helped employees at other companies in years past and questioned what makes their situation different.
"It's making us feel as though we are nothing, our families are nothing, our bills are nothing and it's sad.
"It has put my life back an entire year with bills and school fees. It's not right. We all are Bahamians here and we all need justice."
According to the group, with the money that is owed to them most of them they can open their own business or pay their homes off.
The group claims that since the last meeting with Babak on June 21, 2010, they have heard nothing from him and now they are calling on the Minister for Grand Bahama Michael Darville and Minister of Labour Shane Gibson to step in and bring them justice.
"This shouldn't be happening in The Bahamas today, not in 2012. Our government should not allow a foreigner to come here and just close the business down without paying the people. That's wrong," former worker Trillenena Russell said.
The group is questioning how Babak could still be operating a business and isn't being penalized for what has happened to them.
But Babak, who has since invested more money in the space once occupied by the Home Centre with the opening of an indoor mini mall, explained yesterday he was merely a shareholder and himself lost over $1 million.
"I have lost over a million dollars before it even closed. It was more than half a million dollars in rent which I wasn't paid and I guaranteed the bank a half a million to keep going (in hopes of saving) all the jobs," he said.
Babak said he was disappointed to hear of the former workers' claims regarding his treatment of them since the closure when he lost all of his shares trying to keep the business open.
Babak further explained that Freeport Concrete had not owned one brick of the building but leased it for the operation of the Home Centre.
As for the workers' claims that the building section of the bankrupt business was reopened under a different name by the same owners some three months later, Simpson told The Freeport News, was false.
He revealed that the new business, Freeport Builders, is owned solely by his son and operated by him and he will ever be grateful to his son for his support.
In fact, Simpson said, he, too, took a loss when he stayed on with Freeport Concrete after the bank took over, but was never paid the $30,000-plus he was owed.
Simpson further explained that some of the same staff was rehired, but there was nothing shady about the transaction.
"If I could take all those staff back on, I would. But right now I'm doing my best in this economy of Freeport and I've got eight people back employed," he said.
"There is no shenanigans as far as them being paid debt severance. They weren't. They were in the same boat as all of these people whoever these people are that are complaining."
Simpson said the rehired staff never got severance pay or any special treatment.
"All they got, they got employed by me again. They got back on the employment line," he said.
"And I started them off paying them what I could afford to pay them at that time, but they didn't get any special deal from me because I couldn't do it. It is a completely new company."
The Freeport News also contacted Acting Deputy Vaughn Bullard at the Department of Labour who said he would have to pull the files and look into the matter.
© 2012 The Freeport News