Victoria’s Labour Hire Licensing Proposal: Any hope of an even playing field? Not much.

Victoria is the next cab off the rank with labour hire licensing. And there’s not much time to get submissions in before 6 December. Much of what is described in the consultation paper follows the now familiar pattern in Queensland and South Australia.

It is clear that Victoria is giving a bit more thought to what the exceptions might be and is seeking submissions about them. That’s an encouraging sign. But, it might be difficult to say much about the exceptions until the government reveals a working draft of its primary coverage provision.

It will be worth watching closely to see if Victoria can develop a definition of “labour hire provider” that comes to grips with the question asked in Queensland and still not answered:

“What is there to stop an unscrupulous labour hire supplier from simply re-inventing itself as an unscrupulous labour contractor?”

Judging from the consultation paper, it looks like Victoria is aiming to regulate supply forms of gangmastering/ labour hire and may ignore the substitutable use forms of gangmastering, which are common in cleaning, horticulture, trolley collection and other sectors at risk of the type of exploitation that licensing schemes are intended to prevent.

Let me explain.

The labour hire licensing schemes proposed for Queensland and South Australia prevent (for example) a farmer from dealing with a labour hire provider that employs a worker, whom it sends to the farm to work on the farm in the farm business, unless the labour hire provider has a licence.

To make this clearer, South Australia has recently introduced the following example as an amendment to the coverage provision in its Bill in order to explain what it has in mind:

Guy runs a plumbing business and has an employment contract with Tracey under which Tracey is paid to come to work each day at the plumbing business and be assigned work. Corey runs a grape growing business at which there is a problem with the plumbing. Corey enters into a contract with Guy to diagnose and fix the problem at the business and so Guy sends Tracey to Corey’s grape growing business to do the work. Guy does not provide labour hire services in sending Tracey to do work at Corey’s business.

We can all see that. But you can also see that that approach would  exclude:

Guy runs a grape harvesting business and has an employment contract with Tracey under which Tracey is paid to come to work each day to pick grapes at farms where Guy is providing harvest services. Corey runs a grape growing business at which there are grapes ready for harvesting. Corey enters into a contract with Guy to harvest the grapes and so Guy sends Tracey to Corey’s grape growing business to do the work. Guy does not provide labour hire services in sending Tracey to do work at Corey’s business.

That exclusion is significant if we are talking about a licensing scheme that is designed to prevent exploitation and even up the playing field.

It’s significant because licensing schemes that are imposed solely on supply models don’t prevent labour providers from assembling gangs of workers, housing them in squalid conditions, charging them outrageously for food, transport and accommodation, working them without breaks under a contracted overseer, outsourcing payroll to an associated entity and taking deductions from their pay – if, instead of supplying the worker to the farmer to work in the farm business, the provider merely undertakes to harvest the farmer’s crop using the workers in its own business, whilst buffering the whole arrangement through a chain of sub-contracts and outsourcing arrangements that reduce transparency and accountability.

That’s because the labour provider hasn’t supplied a worker; it has simply used a worker. And it seems that this may not amount to an avoidance measure, because the use form of gangmastering is not covered by the labour hire provider definitions that have been put up so far.

Again, to help illustrate the gaps, let’s see if we can highlight some of the essential pieces of the UK Gangmasters scheme that are missing from the Queensland and South Australian proposals (as we’ve been doing for some months) and now seem likely to be missing from this new Victorian proposal.

GLA s. 4(4)  – A person acts as a gangmaster if he uses a worker to do work to which this Act applies in connection with services provided by him to another person.

 

GLA s.4(5) – A person (“A”) acts as a gangmaster if he uses a worker to do any of the following work to which this Act applies for the purposes of a business carried on by him

(a)        harvesting or otherwise gathering agricultural produce following

(i)   a sale, assignment or lease of produce to A, or

(ii)  the making of any other agreement with A,

where the sale, assignment, lease or other agreement was entered into for the purpose of enabling the harvesting or gathering to take place;

(b)        gathering shellfish;

(c)         processing or packaging agricultural produce harvested or gathered as mentioned in paragraph (a).

 

As you can see, they’re not talking here about supply (there’s another sub-section for that).  And there’s a very good reason for it. It’s because the gangmasters, who assemble and run harvest gangs do not supply workers to farmers. They use them themselves and their use of those workers is just as prone to exploit  workers’ vulnerability as any other labour provider model.

In Australia, the three attempts at labour hire licensing that we’ve seen to date have become caught up in the rhetoric about “labour hire” and appear to have been limited by text book understandings of labour hire that have not kept pace with developments in the workforce services market.

They continue to talk about the tripartite supply model of labour provision as though it were the only model worth talking about. Whilst they imagine that there may be other models, they seem unable to clearly distinguish between them; or find  markers that might give meaning to those distinctions.

They seem to have lost sight of the type exploitation that they are trying to prevent and the distribution of that exploitation across different and largely substitutable service models. There seems to have been a critical failure to come to terms with the composition and structure of the workforce services market in this country.

The schemes have been blinkered by  attempts to create a model that covers all industry sectors – including those in which there has been no evidence of egregious exploitation that would warrant the imposition of a restrictive licensing scheme.

In doing so, they have lost the ability to create clear markers between labour contracting that needs to be regulated to even up the playing field and other forms of contracting that do not.

To cover the defect created by their lack of sophistication, they  simply double down on the tripartite supply model.

So, they end up being too wide and untargeted, whilst simultaneously leaving huge gaps, or blind spots, where the risk of exploitation remains uncontrolled or ignored.

It needs to be stated plainly. You don’t create an even playing field for labour hire providers in the workforce services market by imposing on them a restrictive licensing scheme that fails to regulate the supply of substitutable workforce services operating in the same market.

That’s why the UK gangmaster licensing scheme covers both supply and use forms of gangmastering. It’s also why an industry sector specific scheme makes a lot more sense… that is if you’re really trying to target sectors at the greatest risk of exploitation.

Queensland rushed its legislation through parliament ahead of the election and missed the opportunity to address its shortcomings.  In South Australia, the penny is starting to drop, but still has a long way to fall. Victoria has a chance to get it right, but hasn’t given itself much time to do so, with submissions on exceptions due by 6 December and no sight of the draft legislation yet.

Let’s see how this one goes from here. We shouldn’t have to wait too long!

 

Andrew C. Wood

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