ACCC confirms unions can represent independent contractors

amendments introduced by the Howard government do not prevent unions from representing independent contractors in collective bargaining

ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel has written to Small Business and Independent Contractors Minister Craig Emerson that amendments introduced by the Howard government do not prevent unions from representing independent contractors in collective bargaining.

In early 2007 the Howard government introduced amendments to the Trade Practices Act that were designed to permit small businesses to collectively bargain without breaching competition laws and limit the ability of unions to get involved in collective negotiations.

But The Australian Financial Review reports today that Samuel wrote to Emerson saying existing provisions were “very limited in nature [and] does not restrict the ability of unions to assist in the preparation of a collective bargaining agreement notification or restrict their participation in the negotiation process”.

Samuel’s narrow interpretation is a blow for employer groups, particularly in strong union areas such as building and transport, which had been seeking to limit union involvement in commercial negotiations.

Before the federal election last year, Workplace Minister Julia Gillard won praise from independent contractor groups when she said that collective agreements should not be able to be used to interfere in commercial arrangements involving contractors.

But Ken Phillips, executive director of Independent Contractors of Australia, says the Samuel interpretation simply confirms that independent contractors should be allowed to choose who represents them, from a union to a solicitor.

“If someone wants to get them to get their grandmother to represent them, they should be able to.”

But he warns unions should not be able to go into a company and use the fact they are representing some independent contractors to coerce for force other independent contractors to collectively negotiate.

Phillips says independent contractors who do not want to take part in collective bargaining should still be able to choose their own representation and suggests unions should have to obtain written authorisation from independent contractors before they collectively negotiate on their behalf.

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