Queensland’s High Income Threshold Labour-Hire Exemption: Can You Bank On It?

top view of shattered piggy bank and hammer on rustic wooden tableJust days before its labour-hire licensing scheme was due to start, Queensland finally released its labour-hire licensing regulations. Although it consulted briefly on the content of the regulations, it did not consult widely on the drafting. That was a pity because some agencies are now looking at the regulatory exceptions to the definition of a worker which are set out in regulation 4 and wondering if they are excused from the need to hold a licence.

I wouldn’t want to be banking on that exception. The government’s intent might have been commendable, but its execution raises more questions than it answers. And while the government might not prosecute you (we hope!), failure to obtain a licence if there’s an argument that your workers are excepted, you’ll still be exposed to defences that your more ruthless clients might raise to defeat or delay your payment claims.

The “high-income employee” exception

Let’s break the high-income employee exception down and examine it with some interposed commentary in which I’ll make observations and pose a few questions for you to consider if you’re thinking about relying on this exception. Here it is, taken from regulation 4:

4. Individuals who are not workers—Act , s 8 

  1.  For section 8 (2) of the Act, the following individuals are prescribed—

   (a)  an individual employed by a provider—

The exception relates only to individuals, who are employed by a provider:

  • What if you are on-hiring an incorporated worker – the entity, rather than the individual?
  • What if the individual is employed by someone else and you are merely an intermediary as contemplated by LHLA(Q) s. 7(2)?
  • What if the individual is not employed; but is an independent contractor of yours, or works in some other capacity?

(i)  whose annual wages are equal to or more than the amount of the high-income threshold under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cwlth), section 333; and

The threshold is set by reference to an amount of annual wages.

There are no pro rating provisions in the Regulations. The Regulations have only borrowed the threshold figure from s.333 of the Fair Work Act. They have not borrowed any of the FWA provisions that apply the threshold to part-time work, or to work for a period of less than a year as a rate of earnings.

In any event, it turns out that wages are different from earnings, which is the expression used for the high-income threshold provisions of the Fair Work Act.

Although the term, annual wages is not defined, the term wages is. It has the meaning given in the Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld).

  • What if your individual worker does not receive wages; but receives a distribution from a discretionary trust or partnership; or directors fees or dividends from an incorporated entity?
  • What if your individual worker receives wages from other employers?
  • Do you have the means to investigate those matters?

Wages and earnings include and exclude different things. For example,

  • wages include overtime payments; earnings don’t – unless the overtime is “guaranteed”.
  • the definitions of wages and earnings are formulated differently with regard to the treatment of superannuation.
  • wages exclude the value of non-monetary benefits; earnings include it.

There are other important disparities between the two expressions.

You might have a worker, who has the benefit of a high-income guarantee under the FWA; but who fails to meet the annual wages threshold under the Regulations; and vice versa.

  • Have you identified all the components of annual wages that need to be taken into account or excluded in order to determine whether the annual wages threshold applies to each of your workers?
  • Can you adjust for any allowances that are not expressly excluded by the Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld)? Do you know what they are?
  • Can you say how the annual wages threshold applies at any given point in time before year-end in relation to:
    • a part-time employee with agreed hours?
    • a part-time employee with no agreed hours?
    • an employee receiving (or entitled to) overtime?
  • Can you make an accurate conversion from the annual wages threshold to the hourly rate you are paying your worker (especially if you have structured it as an all-in rate)?
  • Do you perform your conversion on the basis of a 38 hour week, or on some other basis – e.g. the hours actually worked?
  • How do you account for commissions, incentives, and bonuses (both discretionary and non-discretionary)?

(ii)  other than under an industrial instrument under the Industrial Relations Act 2016 or a modern award or enterprise agreement under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cwlth).

Employees, who are employed under any of these instruments do not fall within the range of the regulatory exception. So,

  • Does employment in circumstances where a “jump up” clause applies to the employment constitute being employed under such an instrument?
  • Have you accounted for the range of professional awards that may apply to the employment? Some of the Modern Awards for professionals and other high-income occupations or classifications that could bear upon your calculations could be:
    • Health Professionals and Support Services Award 2010
    • Higher Education Industry—Academic Staff—Award 2010
    • Medical Practitioners Award 2010
    • Nurses Award 2010
    • Professional Diving Industry (Industrial) Award 2010
    • Professional Employees Award 2010

There are others.

As you will quickly see, the failure to deal with these matters by including proper machinery provisions in the regulations has left providers (and their clients) dangerously exposed, if they choose to rely on them. In many cases, they will create false comfort and only the illusion of exemption.

Safe to assume?

Is it safe to assume that the Queensland Government would apply the machinery provisions of the Fair Work Act in order to make some sense of all this?

It might try to. It might even say that it intended to. But, in my opinion, the drafting of this regulation has not lived up to the intent. One can’t put in what the Government left out!

Common sense?

Is it safe to assume that a Court would adopt a “common sense” view of the Regulations and “write in” all the missing features that might help get a labour-hire provider “across the line”?

In my opinion, it is not. It is more likely that a Court would say that the Regulation, in its current form, lacks the necessary machinery to make it fully workable. In that respect, legislative drafting is a bit like software coding – there might have been a lot of common sense in having something included; but unless it has been written into the program, it’s not going to work as intended.

A “commercial” approach?

Is it safe to assume that clients will accept an unlicensed provider’s (self-serving) interpretation of the Regulations; and that they will accept, without question, that every worker whom the provider on-hires – whether to that client or someone else – receives the annual wages threshold, such that the provider does not need a licence?

I doubt it.

What’s more, I doubt that it’s very “commercial” for a provider to place itself on a path, where it can only ever supply exempt workers; and set itself up to have to jump through the application hoops sometime down the track, when it does want to supply a non-exempt worker, and has to explain to the regulator how it’s been operating up to that point.

I doubt that clients, who are sophisticated enough to require the services of high-income employees will consider it an attractive commercial proposition to seek supply from an unlicensed provider, when there are properly licensed providers in the market.

And I don’t know how “commercial” it will be for national and interstate providers to rely on an exemption that only operates in Queensland and not in Victoria or South Australia.

Opting not to seek a licence on the basis of Queensland’s high-income threshold exception is a high-risk strategy. It is one that I doubt many risk-averse clients would be prepared to buy into – especially in view the high penalties and prison sentences that apply to dealing with an unlicensed provider and in light of the mandatory avoidance reporting provisions in the Act.

It looks to me like the regulatory exception for employees, who earn above the high-income wages threshold isn’t one that you’d take to the bank!

What do you think?

Please note: This is a complex area of the legislation. I’d recommend that you seek advice from a qualified legal practitioner if you’re thinking of making use of this exception. And make sure you ask plenty of questions!

Andrew C. Wood

 

 

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