You may have seen reports that the UK’s top court has decided that Uber drivers are not independent contractors. The UK decision seems to support the unions’ campaign against the gig economy. It gives the appearance of international support for Federal Labor’s anti-gig (anti-small business) policy announced earlier this month.
However, sorry to disappoint the small business-haters in the unions and Labor, but the UK’s decision has no relevance to Australia.
The facts in Australia are that Uber drivers have been declared to be independent contractors by:
- Australia’s industrial relations independent umpire, the Fair Work Commission in 2017.
- The Fair Work Ombudsman in 2019.
And last year (2020) the FWC declared that Uber Eats delivery people are independent contractors. In this 2020 decision the Commission looked at the UK law above and stated that its irrelevant to Australia. Here’s why.
In Australia we use the well-known common law tests which identify whether there is a commercial contract or an employment contract. All independent contractors (self-employed people) earn their income through a commercial contract. This is locked in under Australia’s Independent Contractors Act 2006. It protects the right of people to be their own boss.
In 1998 the UK created statutes which say that even if you’re an independent contractor you can still have access to some employment ‘rights’. This is the ‘little bit pregnant’ idea. The UK statute says that someone working under a commercial contract can be a ‘little bit’ an employee. This is the statute that has been ruled upon by the UK Supreme Court last Friday in the Uber case.
The UK has made, and is making, a mess of its treatment of self-employed people. Self-employed UK people have been treated as economic trash during the Covid crisis, receiving little if any income support. For 20 years the UK tax office (HMRC) has been trying to stop the self-employed from having business tax rights. The Uber decision now throws massive uncertainty into commercial contract law.
Fortunately, in Australia since around 2006, we’ve developed policies to support and ‘protect’ self-employed people. This has included the same access as employees to the federal parental leave scheme (2010), JobKeeper and JobSeeker (2020) and the introduction of unfair contract laws (2016) and their planned ‘beefing up this year. Also, this year the full pay-on-time laws for small business should pass.
We ‘protect’ small business people by giving them access to a practical commercial ‘rule of law’ environment, backed by sensible access to social security support where needed. This creates a stronger economy with small business at its core. Let’s hope that the UK small business destruction disease doesn’t spread to Australia.
For a longer version of this article which includes a link to the UK Supreme Court ruling, click here.