On Wednesday, the High Court of Australia delivered its decision in CFMMEU v Personnel Contracting, holding that a UK backpacker, who was engaged and supplied by Perth-based Labour Hire firm, Personnel Contracting, as an independent contractor under the “Odco” system was, in fact, an employee. As a result, you should review your “Odco” arrangements … now!
The majority decisions
Three of the seven High Court judges, Kiefel CJ, Keane and Edelman JJ, considered that the original Odco Case, and subsequent cases that relied on it, contained “an error”, which represented “a departure from principle which should not be perpetuated” (para 59).
Two of the judges, Gageler and Gleeson JJ, thought that the present case differed from Odco because:
- the subject-matter of the contracts in Odco was not unambiguously hourly labour;
- the contracts between the workers and the labour hire company in the Odco cases did not oblige the workers to supply labour in a “safe, competent and diligent manner” (as they did in this case), but simply to “carry out all work” which the workers agreed with the clients of the labour hire company to do and which the workers “guaranteed against faulty workmanship”; and
- most importantly, unlike the terms of business used by Personnel Contracting in this case, nothing in the terms of business between the labour hire firm in the Odco cases and Odco’s clients placed Odco’s workers under the direction and control of the clients.
That was enough to allow the two judges to say that Odco should not be followed in the present case (paras 157 – 158).
Gordon J did not expressly deal with the Odco Case but decided, after considering the “totality of the relationship” as evidenced by the work contract, that the relationship was one of employment, not one of independent contract (para 200). The issue was not so much whether the worker was “in business for himself”; but whether his work was performed in the business or enterprise of Personnel Contracting.
It’s a very subtle distinction to make; but an important one, because (as explained at paras. 182-183) it enables the Court to focus solely on the legal rights and obligations set out in the contract, avoiding any inquiry into “subsequent conduct” of the parties or into whether the worker’s set up demonstrates “the hallmarks of a business”. In this respect, it is consistent with the approach adopted by the High Court in WorkPac Pty Ltd v Rossato.
A sole dissenting voice
Steward J, delivering the only dissenting judgment, was not prepared to stray from Odco. Drawing on a 2005 Parliamentary Report, his Honour pointed out (at para. 210) that:
‘Odco’ arrangements operate in a range of industries. Independent contractors working under this system include farm hands, doctors, secretaries, personal assistants, family day‑care workers, fishermen, salespeople, cleaners, security guards and building workers.
Serious challenges now face labour hire firms using the “Odco” method
His Honour’s explanation for not departing from the Odco Cases will be seen by many as forecasting the serious challenges that labour hire firms, who have relied on the Odco system, now face. At para. 222 his Honour stated:
Whilst this is not a criminal law case, overturning the Full Court’s decision in Odco would expose the respondent to significant penalties on a retrospective basis. That is unfair. It will also… greatly damage the respondent’s business and the businesses of many others. That is undesirable. It will also potentially deny to workers a choice they may wish to make to supply their labour as independent contractors, thus possibly undermining one of the objects of the Independent Contractors Act. Given the severity of these potential consequences, which will apply retrospectively, the fate of the Full Court’s decision in Odco should be a matter left for the legislative branch of government to consider.
His dire warnings, may have many scrambling to undo their Odco arrangements in the fallout, and to put in place “compliance partnerships” with the FWO … unless the legislative branch of the government intervenes.
Though I can’t see that happening quickly … can you?
Andrew C. Wood