Are your contractors really employees?

The ATO continues to enjoy a high success rate challenging the treatment of contractors under the superannuation guarantee (SG) legislation. Despite recent comments made by the Government that the ATO should ‘relax’ its approach to contractors, the ATO has no reason to simply walk away from such a potentially lucrative revenue stream – why would they when the law is on their side?

As there is no real time limit on the recovery of outstanding SG obligations, business owners need to take a proactive approach to reviewing arrangements and ensure that the business is not exposed to material liabilities – the start of the new financial year is a great time to do this.

The underlying issue is often that employers take the contractor relationship at face value – that is, what the piece of paper describing the relationship actually says. The reality is quite different as the law is based on the character of the relationship not what is stated in writing. So, if your business has contractors (or are a contractor) performing the same role as an employee, then it’s possible the ATO will classify them as an employee for SG purposes.

A genuine independent contractor who is providing personal services will typically be:

  • Autonomous rather than subservient in their decision-making;
  • Financially self-reliant rather than economically dependent upon the business of another; and,
  • Chasing profit (that is a return on risk) rather than simply a payment for the time, skill and effort provided.

There are a number of tests that can apply to help determine the status of a contractor – such as control, whether the worker has been hired to produce a result, the ability for them to freely delegate work to someone else, risk exposure, ownership of tools and equipment, and the treatment of business expenses, etc.

Employers cannot contract out SG responsibilities by adding fail safe clauses in contracts. And, there is no certainty that a contractor using an interposed entity (for example setting up their own company and operating through the company) is fool proof.

Posted on the 13-07-2014