ACTU renews push for joint-responsibility employment

Unions are pushing for changes to Fair Work legislation that would see large businesses take more responsibility for contractors and staff from work-for-hire companies, following a key dispute involving Coles and its national distribution centre.

The push comes as the Federal Government is set to release the Fair Work review in the next few weeks and the Fair Work Ombudsman cracks down on sham contracting schemes.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has said the recent dispute at the Coles National Distribution Centre has “highlighted the ways large companies have been contracting out their workforces” to avoid responsibility for pay.

The situation saw workers at a Coles plant strike over pay deals – but the workers were actually hired by Toll, not by the supermarket giant.

The ACTU is now seeking a “joint employment” responsibility program for businesses hiring through work-for-hire companies, along with contractors, saying such programs already exist in the United States and Canada.

The scheme would mean both the provider of the labour and the host employer would have a responsibility to protect rights and entitlements, with ACTU president Ged Kearney accusing larger businesses of dismissing their responsibilities.

“If a worker was injured in that Coles warehouse, both Coles and Toll would be liable. If joint employment is recognised in our OHS laws, why isn’t it in our workplace laws?”

The ACTU was contacted by SmartCompany this morning, but a reply was not available prior to publication.

Kearney also referenced the Howe Inquiry into Insecure Work, which has formed a large part of the ACTU’s campaign for more permanent employment practices rather than a reliance on part-time and casual work. Kearney says the inquiry has recommended changes to the Fair Work Act which recognises both labour providers.

“In practice, this would allow Fair Work Australia to determine that where two or more were controlling or benefiting from employees’ work arrangements, a joint employment relationship exists.”

But workplace law expert Peter Vitale says the idea has never gained traction in Australia, and it will take a large move from the government to do so.

“The idea has been floated before, and it’s never really gotten off the ground. Australian courts have tended to take the more traditional view that a person has one employer.”

“If Parliament feels it necessary to make that change, it will have to legislate.”

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