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Laid-off programmer details "unlawful" last days at Bodycount studio

UPDATED: Codemasters responds.

A former Codemasters employee has accused the publisher of imposing unlawful working conditions and threatening laid-off staff with bankruptcy proceedings for not returning wages "mistakenly" paid to them.

Semi Essessi, a programmer who worked on 2011 first-person shooter at the publisher's now defunct Guildford studio, contacted Eurogamer to detail a long list of grievances held against his former employer.

Codemasters has now responded to these allegations.

"The company has been, and continues to be, in open dialogue with Semi regarding the reimbursement of funds paid into his account following an administrative error, as it is entitled to," Codemasters told Eurogamer.

"As the conversation regarding his personal situation is ongoing, the company has not, as alleged, pursued it as a legal matter with him.

"The company's advisers are now aware of the additional comments that Semi has published and these will be addressed with him directly through the appropriate channels as necessary."

In a whistle-blowing post on his personal blog, Essessi claims that he was not compensated for over 400 hours of overtime he put in over an eight-month period in the run up to the game's launch.

He wrote that the work he was tasked with carrying out "exceeded my job description significantly" and that requests for a pay rise or promotion to reflect that had been turned down by management.

Essessi added that his predicament was by no means unusual in the studio, claiming that he "was most certainly not the worst offender when it came to racking up overtime."

"Pretty much everyone had raised the issue of overtime several times over, but never taken the issue right the way to the top," he wrote.

He alleges that he was promised "time off in lieu" for any overtime worked when he first took the job, but none was ever offered.

When the studio's impending closure and staff layoffs were announced, Essessi took his concerns to human resources who then told him he was not entitled to any overtime pay.

"We appreciate that there was a focus across the whole studio to work extra hours, to get the game completed to the final deadline. However, it was made clear and communicated upfront to everyone that [for] those who did work, no TOIL or overtime pay would be made for those extra hours," read the response from Codemasters' management.

In Essessi's original complaint to HR, he noted that even though he may have opted out of the European Working Time Directive at the start of the project, Codemasters still had a duty to uphold certain legal directives - namely that all workers are entitled to at least 11 hours rest in any 24-hour period, and at least a full 24 hours break in a single week.

"I am sick and tired of big businesses being incompetent and getting away with it because of fear and naivete. I don't like bullies, I never have, I never will."

Semi Essessi, programmer, Bodycount

He insisted that the hours he worked frequently infringed those limits and that Codemasters had made no effort to enforce them.

He also claimed that he had never once been issued with a monthly pay slip "on or before" payday while working at Codemasters - "a small and questionable breach of law".

When the studio shut down weeks later, Essessi and many of his colleagues noticed a "substantial extra sum" had been added to their final pay packets.

"Everyone had received a bit extra and after lots of pub discussion the overriding opinion was that they had seen sense and had decided to pay us all a bit extra to keep us quiet about just how illegally the studio had been running," Essessi reasoned.

Not so. A month later he received both a voicemail and email from Codemasters informing him that he had mistakenly been paid an extra month's wages, and he would need to repay the sum in full by 20th December - just five days away.

"I had already spent the money," explained Essessi.

"I had accrued a considerable amount of debt during the year - some of which for the sake of travelling/moving to Guildford for the sake of Codemasters. It made sense to use it to wipe a big chunk of that out.

"I was also in the situation of needing to find a new place to live (expensive) as well as having transitioned between jobs... and it was Christmas.

"I needed legal advice and they were asking me to repay the money faster than I feasibly could get any. In fact they were asking me to pay by bank transfer as well, meaning I would have to make a payment immediately to have any chance of meeting their ridiculous deadline," he added.

When the deadline passed, Codemasters issued a new date by which it expected payment of 3rd January. Essessi replied stating he would do his best to repay the sum providing he was satisfied that he did in fact legally owe Codemasters the money, "despite the fact that I believe they owe me more than twice the sum they are asking from me as reimbursement for overtime."

When the second deadline passed, he then received a letter from Codemasters' lawyers stating that unless he pays by 20th January, Codemasters will "take your failure to pay as evidence of your insolvency, in which circumstances it will be entitled to petition for your bankruptcy."

"I can't help but feel that Codemasters are being wholly unreasonable about this," continued Essessi.

"They are coming in heavy-handed at a bunch of people - 70 or so - who all received extra money and didn't query it because they all had plenty of good reason to expect it to be a genuine payment.

"After laying us off, after horribly mistreating us, after cocking up the redundancy procedure and best of all, just before Christmas, they are coming at us aggressively because they made yet another mistake.

"I have a general feeling of anger that the redundancy is ultimately down to the people at the senior level... having left a studio to burn through £20 million of expenses without any checks or balances to safeguard the investment, and yet we were blamed for this," concluded his blog post.

"So here I am. I have gone public. You know my name, who I am and what I do. I have nothing to fear from Codemasters or anyone else in the industry - I am in the right - I have been reasonable and approachable and done nothing wrong.

"I write this article now not because I am bitter about redundancy - I've been there before - not because I want to weasel out of paying money - because I am willing to pay it back provided they make it reasonable for me to do so.

"I do it because it is the right thing to do - because I am sick and tired of big businesses being incompetent and getting away with it because of fear and naivete. I don't like bullies, I never have, I never will."

Essessi told Eurogamer that "negotiations are ongoing" and that "the idea of bankruptcy is a laughable threat".

Bodycount on PS3 and Xbox 360.

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