Brickwork subcontractor Irvine Whitlock has agreed to pay backdated Christmas holiday wages in what is seen as an important precedent for other firms, writes Michael Glackin.

Irvine Whitlock, which employs more than 450 operatives, has become the first large trade contractor to withdraw its refusal to pay holiday wages in line with the European Working Time Directive.

The firm was among a number of contractors that ignored advice from the Construction Confederation last year to ensure that all operatives were paid the equivalent of their average weekly earnings for the two-week Christmas break.

Instead, the majority of trade contractors paid operatives the traditional flat rate, usually about half an operative’s weekly wage.

Irvine Whitlock director Geoff Irvine said he made the decision to pay out after taking legal advice. The firm paid the outstanding money last week. Irvine declined to reveal the sum of the final bill.

Construction union UCATT welcomed Irvine Whitlock’s action. Union official Jerry Swain said: “Irvine Whitlock’s decision to pay up is a victory for our position and for common sense. Hopefully, other trade contractors will take notice of Irvine Whitlock’s action and follow suit, before they end up in tribunals.” UCATT has issued industrial tribunal applications against a number of contractors on the issue. Among the firms facing action are Millennium Dome contractor John Doyle and national brickwork contractor Lesterose.

Irvine said: “My view from the start was that if the men were due the money, they would receive it once the situation had been clarified, and we made that clear to our workforce at Christmas.

“The problem was that the advice around at the time was contradictory and we had no idea whether we had to comply with the directive until we got our own legal advice.” The Construction Confederation initially advised contractors that the holiday pay provisions of the working time directive would not have to be implemented until April 1999.

Irvine added: “Frankly, it’s the most complex issue I’ve ever been involved in. We’ve had to calculate the individual entitlement of each of our 450 employees, which was a costly and time-consuming affair in itself.”