UK workers lose £7,500 in foreign job scam

Shipbuilders demand action over scheme for lucrative overseas work adve rtised in JobCentres
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Twenty seven British shipbuilding workers have lost £7,500 each on a fraudulent overseas jobs scheme offering them the chance to earn nearly £50,000 a year tax-free for five years.

Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment, has been asked what steps he is taking to prevent the scam occurring again and how closely his department monitors advertisements offering jobs abroad in government-run Job Clubs and JobCentres.

Two months ago workers in shipbuilding centres in Barrow-in-Furness, Newcastle upon Tyne, Teesside, Merseyside, Glasgow and Aberdeen were attracted by the chance of lucrative work building a power platform off the Pacific island of Guam. They heard aboutthe scheme via word of mouth and adverts at job clubs and JobCentres.

They were told to contact a private agent in the Netherlands. He would arrange the necessary papers and book their return flight to Guam, but first he said his clients had asked for a £7,500 "integrity bond" as a guarantee the men would turn up each day,work hard, behave properly and not steal the equipment.

One of those who lost his money, Norrie Harper, 35, from Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, said such payments were not uncommon in the construction industry. "I have heard of it before, it's sometimes called a good behaviour bond."

While they had not heard of the Bangkok based company hiring them, that did not bother them either - offshore construction companies come and go and frequently change their names. Several of those attracted to the scheme like Mr Harper, a welder, were not unemployed but could not resist the high wages on offer of £48,000 a year, tax-free. Many took out loans or their life savings to go.

"It was five years' work with the promise of an extension for another 10. It was too good an offer to miss," said another worker from Barrow. Married with five young children since he lost his job in the local shipyard he has become resigned to having totravel long distances in order to secure work. When he heard about the contract from a friend who had seen it in a Job Club in Scotland, he leapt at it.

Their new employers went through an elaborate exercise, laying on flights, putting them up at good hotels in Bangkok and Manila, and even issuing them with overalls bearing the company logo.

It was only when the men were at the airport about to leave Manila for Guam, and had paid the final instalment of their £7,500, that they realised they had been conned. The boss turned up and said he was sorry but the barge had just been sold: there was no work for them. After claiming he would try and find them jobs on projects in Saudi Arabia, he disappeared. Thai police have issued a warrant for his arrest. They have detained his business partner and the Dutch agent, although he maintains he knew nothing about the hoax and that he too has been conned.

"We were devastated," says one of the workers. "We've been left with nothing."

Mr Harper says he wished "people would check more thoroughly before they advertise jobs like this - it's been a nightmare all round." The job he left was filled and he is now back in Barrow looking for work.

John Hutton, Labour MP for Barrow, which supplied 11 of the workers, has written to Mr Portillo asking for swift action to prevent a recurrence.

Mr Hutton said he was afraid workers in other depressed parts of the country could be exploited in the same way. He would like to see the introduction of a code of practice requiring JobCentres, Job Clubs, other employment agencies and newspapers which carry advertisements for overseas work to check up on the advertiser's background.