“Employer-of-Record” vs “True Employer”

The recent NSW Supreme Court decision in Branded Media Holdings[1] holds some important lessons for recruiters and others who are considering the use of outsourced employer-of-record (EoR) services – especially if they imagine that using EoR services will protect them, in all cases, from liability as the “true employer”.  That’s because statutory and common law liabilities generally rest with the true employer, irrespective of where formal documents might be trying to direct them

In Branded Media, liquidators and deed administrators of two related companies sought directions from the court as to the identity of the employer of specified employees within the Branded Media Group.

The companies were Branded Media Holdings Pty Ltd (in liq) (Holdings) and Brand New Media Pty Ltd (subject to a deed of arrangement) (BNM). The liquidators and deed administrators’ position was that Holdings was the employer.

The Commonwealth intervened to contend that BNM was the employer. The Commonwealth had advanced more than $1 million in respect of the employees’ unpaid entitlements under the Fair Entitlements Guarantee Act 2012  and stood to recover a substantially higher amount if BNM was held to be the true employer.

The contest was clouded by uncertainty because, whilst the formal documents recorded Holdings as the employer, day-to-day management of the work relationship was conducted by BNM.

The court held that the true employer was BNM. Some telling factors included:

  • Holdings did not conduct any business by which it generated income;
  • Holdings was not the recipient of the services of the employees;
  • the employees provided their services to BNM;
  • Holdings was wholly dependent upon BNM to meet its financial obligations;
  • Holdings did not operate any bank accounts;
  • Holdings did not in fact pay the employees;
  • BNM in fact paid the salaries and wages of the employees;
  • BNM had its logo on some employment forms;
  • business cards used by the employees bore the logo of BNM;
  • the sign-off section of emails sent by the employees referenced BNM;
  • the website referencing the Employees referenced BNM.

You might already be getting a sense of how some of those factors might play out in a case where a staffing agency supplies workers to one of its clients, managing their shifts, providing them with agency uniforms, and binding them to agency policies; but arranging for those workers to be employed “on-the-record” by an outsourced payroll company.  

The Branded Media case is important because the Court clarified the principles that are used to determine which of the two companies was the actual employer. In doing so, it made clear that:

The Court must look to the “substance and reality” in identifying the true employer in these circumstances and would look beyond contractual documentation and to the reality of the manner in which the parties conducted themselves in order to do so.[1]

[The Court may also] have regard to whether the suggested arrangement had an “intelligible business objective” which is “consistent with the financial and administrative organisation of the business”.[2]

The case is also helpful to the extent to which it clarifies that employment-of-record is not a distinct category of employment, but nothing more than an expression to describe an arrangement by which certain of the true employer’s statutory or contractual responsibilities are performed by someone else.

Such an arrangement will not necessarily relieve the true employer of those responsibilities if the EoR fails in performance. And some liabilities, such as the employer’s vicarious liability at common law, may continue to rest with the true employer to the extent to which they derive from the true employer’s notional control of its employees.

The need to identify the true employer will also arise in the context of labour hire licensing prosecutions to the extent to which it may be necessary to determine whether workers of an unlicensed provider who has sought to outsource the obligation to pay its workers to an EoR payroll company may be left with the residue of the statutory obligation to pay sufficient to necessitate the holding of a licence -despite having passed to the EoR a contractual obligation to pay the workers.

Andrew C. Wood


[1] In the matter of Branded Media Holdings Pty Limited (in liquidation); In the matter of Brand New Media Pty Limited (subject to a Deed of Company Arrangement) [2020] NSWSC 557 at [14] adopting Counsel’s submission to that effect.

[2] At [26], developing a further dimension to the test which may be effective to challenge sham arrangements directed at avoidance.

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