On-hire contracting after CFMMEU v Personnel Contracting: Has labour become a commodity?

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The Conference reaffirms the fundamental principles on which the Organization is based and, in particular, that:

(a) labour is not a commodity;

ILO Declaration of Philadelphia 10th May, 1944

Whilst the outcome seems intuitively sound – a young UK backpacker, working as a casual labourer on someone’s building site, is surely an employee – on looking a bit more deeply into the High Court’s reasoning in CFMMEU v Personnel Contracting, I’m beginning to wonder whether the Court’s approach to the back-to-back contracts accords with the reality of the on-hire business model, and whether the decision shows signs of treating labour as a commodity. 

It’s always risky to paraphrase what the High Court says, but basically, what it appears to have said in this case is that, if you’ve got a contract with a labour hire firm to perform work for its clients, then you’re its employee because, through that contract, it controls the provision of your labour. (Kiefel CJ and Keane & Edelman JJ at para [89]).

Abstracting their honours’ reasoning at para [90], you discover that if your work is “dependent upon, and subservient to” someone else’s business through back-to-back contracts, then you must be that person’s employee – you’re working under a contract of service.

Gaegler and Gleeson JJ appear to have adopted much the same approach saying, at para [158]:

…by supplying his labour to Hanssen [the host], Mr McCourt was at the same time supplying his labour to Construct [the labour hire firm] for the purposes of Construct’s business.

You could almost see how that is intuitively sound in the case of a young UK backpacker supplied to work as a construction labourer.  But, to be sound in principle, it has to be capable of wider application. And it’s at that point that the approach adopted by the High Court warrants closer scrutiny.

To test it, take the key passage from the joint judgment of Kiefel CJ and Keane & Edelman JJ at para [89], and simply swap the names and context around to apply to a medical locum agency. Then ask yourselves whether the result is still intuitively sound.

Here it is in translation. The names of the agency and the client are, of course, fictitious:

89  Under the Locum Agreement, Dr McCourt promised LocumsNow to work as directed by LocumsNow and by LocumNow’s customer, Whiteacre Health Service District. Dr McCourt was entitled to be paid by LocumsNow in return for the work he performed pursuant to that promise. That promise to work for LocumsNow’s customer, and his entitlement to be paid for that work, were at the core of LocumsNow’s business of providing [medical] labour to its customers. The right to control the provision of Dr McCourt’s labour was an essential asset of that business. Dr McCourt’s performance of work for, and at the direction of, Whiteacre HSD was a direct result of the deployment by LocumsNow of this asset in the course of its ongoing relationship with its customer.

We can do the same thing with the corresponding passage from the judgment of Gaegler and Gleeson JJ at para [158]:

158 …by supplying his labour to Whiteacre HSD, Dr McCourt was at the same time supplying his labour to LocumsNow for the purposes of LocumsNow’s business.

This sounds dangerously like the heresy of treating labour as a commodity.

What patients were treated at the office of the labour hire firm? A locum agency doesn’t provide, supply, or perform medical labour or services. It arranges for its locums to attend hospitals and health practices to supply the medical services required by the hospital or health practice.  That does not make the locum’s work “dependent upon, and subservient to” the agency’s business in any way that compromises the independence of the locum such as to make them the agency’s employee. It does not place them in service of the locum agency.

Neither does a locum agency’s business model involve the acquisition of medical labour or services; it merely involves the acquisition of contractual rights, freely bargained for, which it utilises to discharge its contractual agreement to provide workforce services to facilitate the marshalling of its client’s workforce.

Its workforce services comprise, not the supply of medical services, or the performance of medical services; but rather, the making of arrangements for their supply.

What, I suspect, will now become critical in distinguishing between on-hire employment and on-hire (independent) contracting will be the extent to which those arrangements compromise, or preserve, the capacity for the locum to work independently in the performance of his or her work – including in the absence of needing to demonstrate the exercise of entrepreneurial skill on his or her own account.

The same would be true for any professional locum agency and its locums.

And it is true, at a conceptual level, for on-hire providers in any sector – horticulture, engineering, logistics, teaching, cleaning, aged care etc.  

What the decision seems to require is a reappraisal of the Court’s understanding of “control” as it was laid down in Zuijs (1955) and in Stevens v Brodribb (1986). And perhaps that’s the direction in which a legislative solution now needs to be found.

It’s sometimes said that, “hard cases make bad law”.  This case may prove the saying true.

Andrew C. Wood

Review your “Odco” arrangements…NOW!

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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:

  1. the subject-matter of the contracts in Odco was not unambiguously hourly labour;
  2. 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
  3. 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.

Fallout

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

A Duck Is Still a Duck

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Yesterday, the High Court handed down its decision in the long-awaited case of CFMMEU v Personnel Contracting. It was a win for the Union. The worker turned out to be an employee, and not an Odco contractor. Over the next few days, the judgment will be pulled apart and more detailed lessons taken from it.  But, for now, here is a quick summary.

Trial

A young UK backpacker, who “had no aspect of a business or intended business, no expressed desire to act in any capacity other than as a builder’s labourer, and merely sought remuneration for the deployment of his labour on a building site supervised, directed and controlled by the builder” was characterised, at first instance, as an independent contractor on an application of the multi-factor test and Odco principles.

First Appeal

The Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia upheld the finding despite the absence of any business clearly having been carried on by the worker. However, in doing so, the Chief Justice expressed a preference for a different outcome though feeling constrained by intermediate appellate decisions which had previously supported Odco contracting arrangements.

High Court – A duck is still duck, call it what you will

The High Court allowed the appeal and held that the worker was an employee.

The essence of the High Court’s decision appears at paras [89] and [90] of the joint judgment of Kiefel CJ, Keane and Edelman JJ.

“[89] … Mr McCourt promised Construct to work as directed by Construct and by Construct’s customer, Hanssen. Mr McCourt was entitled to be paid by Construct in return for the work he performed pursuant to that promise. That promise to work for Construct’s customer, and his entitlement to be paid for that work, were at the core of Construct’s business of providing labour to its customers. The right to control the provision of Mr McCourt’s labour was an essential asset of that business. Mr McCourt’s performance of work for, and at the direction of, Hanssen was a direct result of the deployment by Construct of this asset in the course of its ongoing relationship with its customer.

90 In these circumstances, it is impossible to conclude other than that Mr McCourt’s work was dependent upon, and subservient to, Construct’s business. That being so, Mr McCourt’s relationship with Construct is rightly characterised as a contract of service rather than a contract for services. Mr McCourt was Construct’s employee.”

ZG Operations Australia Pty Ltd v Jamsek & Ors

The Court also delivered judgment in  the companion case of ZG Operations Australia Pty Ltd v Jamsek & Ors.

The case concerned the various entitlements of truck drivers, who derived their sole income by working for the same business for nearly 40 years – and the corresponding obligations of the company for which they worked. It’s not a labour hire case, but it raised similar characterisation questions about the role of the business test in determining whether workers are employees or independent contractors.

The workers were held to be contractors but some aspects of the case have been remitted to the Full Court of the Federal Court for Further determination.

We’ll also pull this case apart over the next few days and see what lessons can be taken from it for the recruitment & staffing industry.

Andrew C. Wood

Vic Labour Hire Authority’s Guide to Engaging Workers as Independent Contractors: Wise men and women following a wandering star?

I was disappointed to read the Victorian Labour Hire Authority’s newly published Guide to Engaging Workers as Independent Contractors.

You can read a copy of the Guide here. But I’m not sure I’d bother.

Remote road with sign post directing traveller into a clump of cactus.

The Guide, though referencing the FWO’s and ATO’s more extensive material, selectively lists only six of the ten key characterisation factors identified by the FWO as necessary to distinguish employment from independent contracting. Significantly, the Guide makes no mention whatsoever of the importance of the intention of the parties.

It fails to mention the fact that the very tests that it does indicate, together with the multi-factorial approach, are presently the subject of two appeals which have been heard by the High Court and are awaiting judgment.

It fails to mention that the Full Bench of the FWC, cognisant of those two appeals and of the approach adopted by the High Court in Rossato, considered that the traditional approach to characterising independent contracting relationships is now clouded by such uncertainty that it put the important case of Deliveroo Australia Pty Ltd v Diego Franco on hold until the High Court decisions are handed down.

It’s worth noting what the Full Bench had to say about that:

[5] We have decided that the appropriate course is to defer the determination of this appeal until the High Court has heard and determined the appeals in Jamsek and Personnel Contracting. This appeal is a matter of some importance, given that it is likely to have significance for the whole of Deliveroo’s workforce and perhaps also for the “gig” sector of the economy more broadly. We agree with Deliveroo that the decision in Rossato (particularly at [101]) has, intentionally or otherwise, called into question what principles are to be applied in determining whether a relationship is one of employment or independent contracting and the status of Hollis v Vabu in that respect. In all likelihood, the High Court’s decisions in Jamsek and Personnel Contracting will provide authoritative guidance as to these issues.

Nevertheless, the Victorian Labour Hire Authority, confident of the authority of its own view, presses ahead with what it claims is a guide to ensure that, when engaging workers as independent contractors, you:

  • comply with your legal obligations
  • do not engage in sham contracting
  • keep your labour hire licence.

You can make your own mind up about how much guidance it provides… and in what direction it is steering you.

The best that can be said about it is that it errs on the side of caution. 

But it errs, nonetheless.

Andrew C. Wood