2007 has been a significant year for Independent Contractors of Australia and for independent contractors themselves.
The major issues have been:
- The passage of the Independent Contractors Act, a world first.
- The enormous change in the attitude and policies of the federal Labor Party in relation to independent contractors.
- The change of federal government in November and the appointment of a Minister for Independent Contractors, again a world first we suspect.
For ICA, we have:
- Been involved in highly fruitful and detailed discussions with both the Liberal/National coalition government and the ALP opposition.
- Undertaken a total reorganization of ICA and a major upgrade of our website.
- Seen a significant expansion of our membership base.
- Launched the first phase of new services for independent contractors through our website.
Independent Contractors Act
The Act became law on 11 December 2006. It is the first such law of its type in the world, and secures the right of independent contractors to be treated under commercial law and not employment or industrial relations law. It takes up the key principles secured under the International Labour Organisation Recommendation of 2006.
ICA was heavily involved in lobbying on the details of the law and we are highly supportive of it. There are issues where we would like to see amendments—particularly with the exclusion of owner-drivers and clothing outworkers from the protections provided by the Act.
Liaison on policy issues
2007 was dominated by the build-up to the federal election in November, with workplace issues being at the centre of the political debate. Within this context, the Board of ICA had considerable and constant involvement with senior people from the Liberal/National Coalition government and the federal ALP opposition. This included the Small Business Minister and the Shadow Minister. Most of the discussions were conducted on a confidential basis. When we placed information on the ICA website which commented on party policies, we followed a protocol of checking with the respective parties to ensure that our understanding of their policies was accurate. Our comments were, of course, always our own.
ICA greatly appreciated the professional, policy-focused approach that was displayed in our dealings with both major parties.
Australian Labor Party
The ALP has traditionally taken an aggressive attitude towards independent contractors, but in 2007 a huge change occurred. The ALP adopted a wide range of policies that amounted to a complete acceptance of the legitimacy of independent contractors as an important part of the mix in a vibrant workforce. This has been a most pleasing development. With the ALP winning government at the 24 November election, independent contractors should be able to look forward to continuing security of their status.
Minister for Independent Contractors
Craig Emerson MP is now the first Minister for Independent Contractors, a portfolio responsibility he holds along with Minister for the Services Industry, Small Business, and assisting the Finance Minister particularly charged with reducing government red tape. To our knowledge, this is the first time anywhere in the world that a minister has been appointed to look after independent contractors’ issues. When he was shadow minister with the same portfolio, Craig indicated that significant importance would be attached to the development of simple dispute-resolution procedures for independent contractors. Addressing red tape issues affecting independent contractors will also be important.
The 2007 federal budget saw a significant advance for independent contractors in terms of the delivery of large measures of tax equity regarding superannuation contributions when compared with employees. Until this development, independent contractors did not have the same access to tax concessions for superannuation contributions that were available to employees. Now, the tax concession availability is very much aligned.
Definitions of independent contractors
An important development this year was our involvement with the Productivity Commission and the Australian Bureau of Statistics when both organisations were reviewing their definition of independent contractors for statistical data-collection purposes. Achieving data-collection techniques that align with sometimes precise legal definitions has always been a challenge in relation to independent contractors. We are confident that the reviews conducted by both organisations will lead to outcomes that improve the quality of data collection.
Interesting research emerged late in 2007 from Murdoch University (WA) showing that Australian independent contractors are happier with their work than are employees. This closely reflected the findings from Zurich University in 2004.
Until 2006, ICA had focused exclusively on being a lobby organisation for the rights of independent contractors. However, we have had constant requests for the supply of services as well. We decided to respond and take the next step. But to do this we found it necessary to restructure ICA and broaden our membership structure to accommodate independent contractors and those who engage independent contractors. ICA has always been committed to the view that to achieve high quality policy and service outcomes, we need to consider the perspectives of both parties to commercial contracts.
2007 involved shifting our registration from South Australia to Victoria, changing the constitution to reconfigure the membership and Board structures, and a major revamp of our website. These tasks have been massively time-consuming but are now completed, enabling us to move forward to focus on service delivery issues while nevertheless continuing our lobbying on public policy issues.
ICA has a full and comprehensive body of information on independent contractor issues. In fact, we find that our website information is frequently used as a core reference source on independent contractor issues by research academics, government policy analysts, business systems people and others.
In expanding our services beyond information, opinions and education, ICA’s approach is primarily to link with organisations which specialize in service delivery. Our first major link has been with the contract template organisation PeopleInsite. Since establishing this relationship with PeopleInsite, we have had feedback that a significant number of individuals and businesses have already accessed the services’.
This is the first of a wider range of services that will be developed during 2008, the next of which should be independent contractor-specific links with the Australian Taxation Office.