Collective Bargaining in the Freelance, Contracting and Gig Economies

Young people work in modern office.As job-based employment seemingly evolves toward job-based entrepreneurship in the freelance, contracting and gig economies, we may soon witness the emergence of new models of workforce organisation and worker representation. That is, if the ACCC’s plan to grant a class exemption allowing small businesses to bargain collectively with their customers and suppliers goes ahead.

Collective bargaining, in this context, involves two or more competitors getting together to negotiate with a supplier or customer (the “target”) about terms, conditions and/or prices.

It is distinguished from bargaining under the Fair Work Act in that the parties who get together are not employees; they are actual business competitors.

They include many contractors and freelancers, working in the on-hire and gig environments.

They may be technology contractors, medical locums, project managers, professional science & engineering contractors, designers & creatives, book-keepers, contract cleaners, contract logistics operators, or translators.

Indeed, they may be any small business that undertakes professional, skilled, or trade work that is done by workers who perform their work in, and as part of, their own businesses.

Recruitment, contracting, and staffing agencies would therefore do well to follow this new development closely; and begin to think about the challenges and opportunities that the ACCC’s proposal presents.

For example, what might an on-hire or IT contracting agency expect from a scheme that allows a pool of  its IT contractors to bargain collectively with it on price, terms and conditions of engagement?

Who might represent them? Should the current restriction on trade union representation apply? If it did, might we witness the emergence of contractor “guilds” that would be able to operate outside the Fair Work bargaining framework?

How might the ACCC’s concept of joint procurement bargaining play out, if it allowed that same pool of IT contractors to bargain simultaneously with their IT contracting agency and its clients?

What might small recruitment agencies, working in the creative or medical locum industries, gain from being able to bargain collectively with clients on price, terms and conditions of supply – without the need for any notification or authorisation?

What might the competition impact be on medium and larger businesses, who fall outside the scope of the class exemption; or who may be the targets of collective bargaining?

How might the role of industry associations develop to support members looking for collective bargaining resources and solutions?

These are just a few questions that recruitment, contracting, and staffing agencies (and their industry associations) might now be asking. No doubt there are many others.

The ACCC would like to hear about them by 21 September 2018.

 

Andrew C. Wood

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