Engaging contractors and the risks of sham contracting

Taking on contingent labour brings a multitude of benefits to your business. There are also risks. Let’s take a look at how you can prepare for contingent workers in your business, without suffering any negative outcomes.

The stats

Firstly, let’s take a look at the rising numbers of contingent workers in the workplace today:

  • Contingent workers are expected to make up 40% of the workforce by 2025 (EY).
  • In Australia, 23% of employers say they engage contingent workers, 44% of which is for ‘special projects’ – that is, short-term, finite projects best suited to contract talent (Hays).
  • The ABS has released figures that estimate a 9% rise in contingent workers across Australia’s workforce, up 2% in six years.
  • In China, there’s a seismic shift taking place. Traditional employment is on the decline as workers opt for flexibility, greater freedom and to pursue entrepreneurial endeavours (PwC).

The benefits

It’s no wonder that contractors are on the rise. Given the many benefits of engaging contingent workers, organisations are jumping onboard. Here are some examples…

  • A new technology system integration project arises for the business. You need change managers, technical expertise and other integration skills, all for a limited period. You bring these staff into the business, saving you overhead costs, ongoing labour costs and statutory costs.
  • A business is experiencing significant growth. Managing at scale can be successfully achieved with short-term, temporary labour.
  • A business is launching a new product or service. Launching this to market is taken care of by specialists in this field, who work to achieve specific outcomes within the agreed timeframe.
  • Introducing a more systematic approach to engaging contingent workers allows for a just-in-time staffing approach, which provides for less risk, especially for early-days organisations that are expanding rapidly.
  • An unforeseen requirement for temporary labour arises and the hiring manager has no time to source talent. They rely instead on the services of a temporary staffing agency, which can often fill talent gaps quickly. The requirement is filled in a timely manner without holding up the project.
  • A strategic approach to managing contingent labour offers organisations the opportunity to significantly reduce costs. From onboarding to disengagement, the management firm keeps the cost of contingent talent low.
  • From a legislative standpoint, organisations who engage contingent labour are free from a number of statutory cost commitments including PAYG tax, payroll tax, fringe benefits tax, workers’ compensation insurance, and superannuation.

These are just a few example scenarios where the engagement of contingent workers is truly beneficial.

The risks

Conversely, contract labour also presents organisations with – at times – complex statutory obligations, which if breached can be incredibly costly or even terminal to a business.

In the banking and financial services industry, there’s a growing demand for risk and compliance professionals, in light of the recent Royal Commission. Hence, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) and the Australian Tax Office (ATO) will now be even more vigilant regarding organisations toeing the compliance line when it comes to engaging non-permanent workers.

The key issue is this: if an individual is engaged as an independent contractor into a business, yet the FWO or the ATO deems them to be an employee, the price to pay for the organisation – and even the individuals involved – is heavy. The Fair Work Act 2009 will uphold a maximum fine of A$63,000 for each transgression.

Cost of sham contracting

For the organisation engaging contingent workers, it’s important they’re across the industry guidelines. Here are a few…

  • There’s no one, single determinant of what constitutes a ‘contractor’, so yes, this is a complex area.
  • Likewise, there’s no single test that determines whether a worker is deemed an ‘employee’ or ‘contractor’.
  • The legislation in this area is outdated at best. It’s wise to obtain legal advice up front.
  • Some rules of thumb to prevent a contractor being deemed an employee, include:
    • A contractor shouldn’t be entitled to all the perks of an employee.
    • Conversely, a contractor should be entitled to an appropriate wage, in their ‘contractor’ working status.
    • Just because a contractor has an ABN and submits invoices to the employer for payment, doesn’t necessarily mean they comply with the ‘contractor’ status rules.
    • Contractors shouldn’t be receiving superannuation entitlements.
    • Does the contractor have control over their work, or is it driven mostly by the organisation? If the latter, they’re more likely to be an employee.
    • How is the contractor paid? Is it standardised, like it is for employees, or is it on completion of specific projects and tasks? The latter is the better scenario for contract workers.
    • Who provides the tools and equipment to the contract worker? If all is provided by the employer, coupled with any of the above, may lead the individual to be deemed an employee.

There’s also the concept of ‘sham contracting’, which is described on the business.gov.au website as:

sham contracting

Sham contracting is also addressed under the Fair Work Act. Here are some of the stipulations, largely about what an employer can’t do:

  • Misrepresent an employment relations as an independent contracting relationship.
  • Dismiss or threaten to dismiss a permanent employee to then engage them as an independent contractor.
  • Make false statements to persuade an employee to become an independent contractor.

The Fair Work Act, driven by industry watchdog the Fair Work Ombudsman, contains provisions to protect the rights of contract workers. Hence, it’s in the interests of employers to be familiar with the act.

More reading on this topic can be found below:

The Independent Contractors Act, 2006

The Fair Work Act, 2009

The Fair Work Ombudsman


Here are the new rules around labour hire licencing.


As one of the world’s leading providers of contingent worker management solutions, CXC is well positioned to optimise all elements of your contingent workforce strategy. With operations in more than 50 countries across five continents and decades of experience, we can assist with every aspect of your program.

If you would like to find out more about how we can help please contact us here.