Serious questions for courier industry
BY MICHAEL PIERSE
A case currently being processed by the Scope section of the 26-County Department of Social Welfare has exposed major problems in the courier industry.
Martin McMahon's story was featured in An Phoblacht on 2 November last year. As a courier working for Securicor Omega Express, McMahon had been categorised for tax and social insurance purposes as a contractor rather than as an employee.
This meant, he says, that he was liable to be sacked at any time, was subject entirely to the control of his employers, regardless of labour laws, and in the event of him being unable to work, he would be denied the normal financial supports available to employees. While Securicor Omega had total control over his livelihood, Martin says, his job security was akin to that of a tightrope walker with no safety net. Or at least tightrope walkers might expect the odd day off, especially in tragic circumstances.
``Three years ago myself, my partner and my child ended up in hospital after a fire in our apartment building,'' he recalled. ``The following day I rang to say that I was not able to come in for work but the manager insisted that I must. Having just lost all our worldly posessions, I was terrified also of losing my job, so I borrowed some clothes from my brother and went to work.''
McMahon said that occurences such as this are not irregular and that the insecurity felt by workers in the sector is frightening. ``I constantly see couriers being dismissed for not keeping the hours set by the company or refusing to work for any reason.''
However, all this was going to change, Martin believed, when he won a landmark case against Securicor Omega Express in September of last year. Scope, the Social Welfare department responsible for dealing with insurability cases, had found in his favour and classified him as an employee, rather than a contractor. Martin, along with 15 other couriers pursuing legal action for the same recognition, had some cause to celebrate.
As soon as the decision had been made, Securicor Omega decided to seek an appeal, which is due to be heard next Wednesday, 24 January.
other revelation is quite explosive. Though McMahon's case is important, it is not the test case on which a precedent on the status of couriers was originally set.
In 1993/1994, apparently in an attempt to resolve the matter of whether couriers were contractors or employees, the Department of Social Welfare selected a number of test cases. Three cases were chosen for examination, and the Department concluded that couriers should be treated as contractors rather than employees, the root of the current case. Martin McMahon claims that the adjudication process at te time was unfair as, he claims, at least two of these three cases were not selected by the department itself but by the courier industry.
The controversy over the employment status of couriers has shone a spotlight onto the internal goings-on of the courier industry. In a letter seen by An Phoblacht, written in December, Fergus Whelan, Industrial Officer at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, asked John Shine, Secretary of the Hidden Economy Group (set up under the PPF to investigate fraud in the economy) to make allegations of tax evasion by courier firms a priority issue on the group's agenda.
Whelan wrote: ``The number and scale of operation of courier firms has expanded enormously in recent years. While it is clear that some of these firms are operating fully within the formal economy, there is growing evidence that this is not the case in relation to many of them. Serious allegations of tax evasion and non-compliance with PRSI have been made to Congress about many firms in this sector. As the number of employees with these firms continues to expand rapidly, it is essential that the necessary steps are taken by both the Revenue Commissioners and Social Welfare to ensure that all firms in this sector are fully compliant with the relevant tax legislation and PRSI regulations.''
Whelan also recommends that both the Revenue Commissioners and Social Welfare brief the Hidden Economy Group on their understanding of the operation of the courier sector in the Dublin area.
One senior Department of Social Welfare official, who spoke to An Phoblacht, said that what he termed `legitimate' courier companies are eager to comply with 26-County state bodies in ensuring that their practices are compliant with the law. However, while the courier industry might have had it easy six years ago, next Wednesday they may find that the tables have turned.