In Germany, it is prohibited by law to hire clandestine workers. But what happens if a principal nevertheless hires a clandestine worker and does not pay the agreed compensation? Is the clandestine worker entitled to claim his compensation before court? In a recent judgment dated 10 April 2014, the German Federal Court of Justice (“Bundesgerichtshof“) said “no“ and decided that clandestine employment must not be compensated.
The defendant was building serial houses; the plaintiff was instructed by the defendant to do electrical installations. As compensation, plaintiff and defendant had agreed that the defendant would pay a lump-sum of EUR 13,800 including VAT and another EUR 5,000 cash and without invoice. From the agreed amount of EUR 5,000, the defendant had paid EUR 2,300 but refused to pay the remaining EUR 2,700. The claim with which the plaintiff (inter alia) requested payment of these EUR 2,700 was, however, dismissed:
The agreement between the parties, obliging the defendant to pay the cash amount of EUR 5,000, is null and void. According to Section 134 of the German Civil Code, an agreement which violates a statutory prohibition is void, unless the statute leads to a different conclusion. In this case, the parties´ understanding has violated Section 1 no. 2 (2) of the German Act to Combat Clandestine Employment (“Schwarzarbeitsbekämp-fungsgesetz“), which classifies as clandestine employment the nonfulfilment of statutory tax liabilities. According to the Court, it was evident that the parties´ agreement to provide works without an invoice was meant to conceal the plaintiff´s turnovers from German tax authorities and to provide a price advantage for the defendant. Even if the „cash understanding“ referred to only a part of the agreement, the violation of Section 1 no. 2 (2) of the Act leads to a nullity of the entire agreement. As a consequence, the clandestine worker was not able to claim the agreed compensation from the principal.
What makes the decision of the German Federal Court of Justice particular? In a former decision of 1990, the Court had decided that although the agreement between principal and contractor was violating the (former) Law on Clandestine Employment the contractor was nevertheless entitled to claim restitution according to the value of his work. The Court argued that the principal who mostly is the economically stronger party, would otherwise be in unjust advantage if he was allowed to keep the clandestine worker´s performance without any consideration. Since 1990, the Laws on Clandestine Employment have tightened. Accordingly, in 2013, the Court heralded a change of its case law and ruled that a principal has no warranty claims against a clandestine worker, if the worker´s performance was poor, inadequate or insufficient. With its 2014 decision, the Court emphasized the importance to enforce the Laws on Clandestine Employment effectively: A person who deliberately violates the Law does not deserve to be protected by civil law. By denying the principal´s warranty claims on the one hand and the clandestine worker´s claim for compensation on the other hand, parties shall be restrained from concluding a prohibited clandestine agreement. Whether or not this judgment will have the expected deterrent effect on clandestine contractors and principals remains to be seen.