Protecting against accessorial liability

The Fair Work Ombudsman has been very active in pursuing individuals who it believes have reasonably been a party to contraventions of minimum wages and conditions whether overtly in action or by omission or failure to exercise due diligence.

Investigations into cases involving large businesses such as Coles and Woolworths and Myer who contract work out to other entities which do not meet their compliance obligations have been undertaken from the perspective that the principal in the supply chain should have known and acted to prevent the non-compliance even though it was not the actual employer.

This raises questions about who might be considered an accessory to a contravention and here is what the Fair Work Ombudsman recently had to say about that.

Section 550

Under section 550 of the Fair Work Act; a person who is involved in a contravention of the Act is held responsible for that contravention. A person is involved in a contravention if they:

  • have aided, abetted, counselled or procured the contravention; or
  • have induced the contravention, whether by threats or promises or otherwise; or
  • have been in any way, by act or omission, directly or indirectly, knowingly concerned in or party to the contravention; or
  • have conspired with others to effect the contravention.

What does this mean for individuals?

Anyone who is found to be involved in a contravention of the Act can be personally liable for compensating employees and paying penalties imposed by the court. The Fair Work Ombudsman has used this provision to hold company directors personally accountable for the actions of their companies. This effectively means that liquidating a company is no guarantee of avoiding the consequences of non-compliance with the Act.

But section 550 can extend to anyone involved in a contravention. This can include human resources and payroll officers, line managers, accountants and advisors.

What does this mean for companies?

If a company, as the employing entity, contravenes the Act: that company is automatically responsible for that contravention and may have penalties imposed by a court. But under section 550 a company that is not the employing entity, may be found to be involved in a contravention and may also have penalties imposed by a court.

This is important for companies to consider especially in their supply-chain and procurement processes. Effectively it means that companies cannot outsource their non-compliance. For example if one company contracts another company to supply cleaning staff; and those cleaners are underpaid: both companies may be held accountable by a court. 

This has broad implications for businesses that use outsourcing, franchise arrangements or complex supply-chains. The full scope of section 550 in these types of arrangements has not been settled by the courts, however, the Fair Work Ombudsman is determined to take action to ensure a culture of compliance is established and maintained broadly across all businesses.

You should also note that fines of up to $10,800 per offence can be imposed on individuals and up to $54,000 per offence can be imposed on companies.

What you need to do

Firstly, if you are an employer, ensure that you are aware of and comply with your own obligations as an employer and that these are properly documented in employment contracts/letters of offer etc.

Secondly, if you contract work out to another party, verify that that contract enables the other party to be capable of meeting its employment compliance obligations and that that other party actually does so.

Thirdly, if you are an internal HR Manager or other Manager, ensure that you have processes in place that genuinely test whether work contracted out is conducted in accordance with employment obligations (ie people are contracted and paid appropriately). This needs to be more than having the contractor just tick a box

Fourthly, if you are an external business advisor, ensure that the advice that you provide is competent and, if you are not confident of your competency in employment matters, engage a delivery partner to provide that competency.

Ways that we can help

Ridgeline HR has been providing just that sort of advice since we started in 2000. We have done this with hundreds of clients across all sorts of industries throughout Australia. We have serviced the members of an industry association and the clients of accounting firms for many years and we have been recognised by federal government agencies in the past for our expertise.

We now also offer a supply chain education and audit service which in essence involves us auditing supply chain participants’ compliance and advising them on any areas that they need to fix. This proactive approach to assuring downstream compliance provides a simple and practical approach to managing the risk of accessorial liability.

If you are interested in exploring ways in which we might be of assistance in these areas, call Peter Maguire on 0438 533 311 or email peter@ridgelinehr.com.au