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Electrician body has €1m balance

A private company set up by unions and employers to monitor the wages paid to electricians has accumulated a cash balance of almost €1m.

The latest accounts for EPACE show that the company had cash in hand of €918,814 in December 2009.

The company is owned by the electrical trade union, the TEEU, and two employers' groups, the Electrical Contractors Association and the Association of Electrical Contractors (Ireland).

A legacy of social partnership, the company was set up under the auspices of the Labour Court to ensure that electrical contractors are paying the wage rates -- currently €21.49 an hour -- set in registered employment agreements.

The company accumulated its considerable cash reserves over a decade through weekly contribution of 38 cents from electricians and their employers. The contributions are submitted, along with pension contributions, to the Construction Workers Pension Scheme (CWPS). The CWPS, in turn, transfers the contributions to EPACE.

Company accounts show that the TEEU, which carries out inspections for EPACE, was paid €72,000 in "inspection fees" including Labour Court hearings in 2008 and €32,000 in 2009. In addition, the TEEU and the Electrical Contractors Association were each paid €4,000 a year in administration and secretarial services by EPACE.

Although the contribution from workers and employers seems small at just 38 cents a week, the cash it generated during the construction boom years was considerable.

Documents seen by the Sunday Independent show that in 2004 electricians and their employers contributed €158,388 in one nine-month period to Epace. However, the CWPS transferred €426,164 in error. The overpayment of €267,776 -- which the CWPS blamed on a "technology glitch" -- was refunded in May 2004.

Taxpayers -- including electricians -- are already funding a government quango, the National Employments Rights Authority (NERA), which does the same work as EPACE in monitoring wages paid to employers.

NERA, which receives €6m a year in state funding, is on a statutory footing while EPACE has no statutory powers and depends on the cooperation of employers.

EPACE was this weekend unable to answer questions about what it plans to do with its €1m. The chairman of the EPACE board, Eamon Devoy, who is also head of the TEEU, was away last week.

The TEEU "general secretariat" responded on behalf of Epace. It said it has collected €6m in underpayments to electricians and non payment of their pension contributions.

"In the last four years over 784 inspections have been carried out on employers by EPACE inspectors.

"A total of 359 cases of non-compliance have been referred to the Labour Court during this period . . . If employers acted in accordance with the Registered Employment Agreement, which is legally binding, then there would be no need for a compliance body.

"Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that not all employers are law-abiding."

The board of EPACE includes directors drawn from the trade union and the employers' bodies. They are not remunerated. The company employed two staff at a cost of €99,639, including pension contributions, according to 2009 company accounts.

Employers have attacked the wage rates fixed by registered employment agreements (REAs) -- and monitored by EPACE and its equivalent in the construction sector, CIMA. They claim the REAs are anti-competitive and the International Monetary Fund sought a review as a condition of the bailout.

The review -- conducted by the Labour Court chairman -- is believed to have recommended protecting the current system but also a a radical overhaul to reflect the economic climate.

Sunday Independent