By the Bais Hora'ah
Q. I hired a contractor to renovate my house, and he hired workers to do the actual labor. After they had worked for him for a long time, he declared bankruptcy. Since he is not planning to pay the workers, they turned to me and demanded payment for their work. Am I required to pay them, or can I tell them to sue the contractor for payment and leave me out of it?
A. The basic question here is whether someone who has not directly hired a worker, but has benefited from his labor, is required to pay for the benefit he derived.
The poskim discuss a case in which a homeowner asked an agent to hire workers for him, and the agent tells the workers that he (i.e., the agent) is responsible for their payment. Some poskim say that the workers nevertheless assume that the agent is merely an intermediary and they are actually working for the homeowner (Avnei Hachoshen 332:1; Yisron Ha’ohr, Bava Metzia perek 6). Others maintain that the workers agreed to work for the agent, not for the homeowner (L’chikrei Halachos L’hagrach Heller 6; Ulam Hamishpat 315:4; see Mishpetei Hachoshen 336 fn. 18).
Some maintain that since the standard practice nowadays is that the homeowner hires a contractor who directs the workers, takes responsibility for the work, and hires subcontractors to do the labor under his supervision, all the aforementioned poskim would agree that the laborers are working only for the contractor, not for the homeowner.
On a practical level, the halachah depends on whether you already paid the contractor.
If you did not pay the contractor, then this becomes a case of shibuda d’Rav Nosson, which means that if Reuven lends money to Shimon, and Shimon lends money to Levi, Reuven may demand payment directly from Levi (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 86:1). Similarly, since you owe money to the contractor and he owes money to the workers, the workers may demand payment directly from you.
[An exception to shibuda d’Rav Nosson is in cases in which the second borrower (Levi) might lose out by paying directly to the first lender (Reuven); see Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 9) with Pischei Teshuvah 7.]
If you already paid the contractor, you definitely don’t have to make a second payment to the workers, even according to the poskim who hold that they were employed by you as well as the contractor. When you remitted payment to the contractor, who was supposed to use your funds to pay the workers, it was akin to the case of a lender who instructs a borrower to repay the loan to his agent. Just as in that case, once the borrower made the payment to the agent he is no longer responsible for it reaching the lender (ibid. 121), so, too, in your case, since you paid the contractor who was the workers’ “agent,” you are no longer responsible for paying them.
The halachah would be more complicated, however, if the workers had specifically cautioned you not to remit their wages to the contractor, because they knew he was in financial distress, and you didn’t follow their instructions. In such a case, shibuda d’Rav Nosson actually requires you to pay the workers directly, and your payment to the contractor is not considered a valid method of paying the workers. Therefore, if the workers cannot extract payment from the contractor, you would be required to pay them (see Shach 86:14).