Following two prominent High Court decisions which dealt with the distinction between employees and independent contractors, the ATO has sought to provide guidance to businesses in the form of a taxation ruling. The most significant departure from its previous position is that the ATO now considers that various indicators of employment identified in case law, while relevant, should only be considered in respect of the legal rights and obligations between the parties, with the most important factor the holistic consideration of the contract between the parties.

In brief, the High Court’s decisions deal with the distinction between employees and independent contractors in the context of a labour-hire company and two truck drivers operating through partnerships to provide delivery services to their former employer. In the first case, the High Court ruled that a labourer engaged by a labour-hire company to work on construction sites under the supervision and control of a builder was an employee of the labour-hire company.

The High Court noted that this right of control, and the ability to supply a compliant workforce, was the key asset of the business as a labour-hire agency and constituted an employment relationship. That the parties chose the label “contractor” to describe the labourer did not change the character of that relationship, the High Court said. This decision also overruled a earlier Full Federal Court decision which held, after applying a “multifactorial approach”, that the labourer was an independent contractor.

In the second case, the High Court held that two truck drivers were not employees of a company for the purposes of the Fair Work Act 2009 and Superannuation Guarantee (Administration) Act 1992. The Court also observed that the provision of such services has consistently been held, both in Australia and in England, to have been characteristic of independent contractors (and not of employees).

The ATO’s Taxation Ruling 2023/4 now states that whether an individual worker is an employee of an entity under the term’s ordinary meaning is a question of fact to be determined by reference to an objective assessment of the totality of the relationship between the parties, having regard only to the legal rights and obligations which constitute that relationship.

In addition, where the worker and the engaging entity have comprehensively committed the terms of their relationship to a valid written contract, it is the legal rights and obligations in the contract alone that are relevant in determining whether the worker is an employee of an engaging entity.

The ruling notes that evidence of how the contract was performed, including subsequent conduct and work practices, cannot be considered for the purpose of determining the nature of the legal relationship between the parties. However, this evidence can be considered to establish the contractual terms or to challenge the validity of a written contract with general contract law principles.

In conjunction with the ruling, the ATO has also released a practical compliance guideline which sets out its compliance approach for businesses that engage workers and classify them as employees or independent contractors.