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Is Australia prepared for a freelance revolution?

A freelance revolution is occurring all over the world. But are Aussie employers ready for the impact this trend will have on workplace laws? A lack of a clear cut definition for independent contractors could leave local businesses exposed to prosecution.

Tech platforms like Peopleperhour.com, Taskrabbit.com and Odesk.com are connecting willing workers with jobs in entirely new and exciting ways.

Taskrabbit.com, a US based service, enables all manner of daily tasks to be posted to willing workers in local communities. Jobs like shopping, collecting laundry and constructing IKEA furniture are readily accepted by people looking to earn a few extra dollars with their time.  There is no minimum value per task but a typical task earns between $10 and $30.

Peopleperhour, a UK based service, is more focused on connecting small businesses with local independent workers. Jobs posted include recruitment, office admin, sales, PR, marketing and IT.  Other services like elance.com and freelancer.com are more focused on posting tasks such as data entry, coding or graphic design which can be accepted and performed by people anywhere on the planet.

The growth of independent workers or freelancing promises greater choice in the way people work and earn money. Independent workers can be more mobile, they can accept a wider variety of work from anywhere in the world and at times which suit them. Businesses can hire top talent on an as needs basis and therefore stay more lean and flexible.

The growth rate in freelancing platforms is impressive. Peopleperhour reports that their number of registered workers has doubled from 120,000 to 240,000 in the past year.  Odesk.com reports that the online work market will exceed $1 billion in 2012. Some industry experts even claim that independent workers will be the majority of the US workforce by 2020.

As the freelance revolution inevitably sweeps Australia it is bound to challenge our traditional approach to employment law and independent contracting. Contrary to the freelancing revolution, Australia is re-regulating its workplace laws to make independent contracting more difficult and introduce statutory penalties for “sham” contracting.

Platforms like taskrabbit.com and peopleperhour.com could face serious legal hurdles in Australia. For example businesses posting tasks could easily be classed as employers and incur heavy fines for undercutting minimum engagement periods and base wages in Modern Awards. To avoid this freelancers would have to register companies through which they perform their work which is often uneconomical and complex.

Australia’s lack of a clear cut definition for independent contractors leaves businesses exposed to prosecution. This will inevitably hamper the ability of Australian businesses to utilise independent workers when compared to other developed economies with clear laws in this area.

As technology continues to connect workers with businesses across Australia and the world our lawmakers will be challenged to adapt. It is certain that employment laws conceived in the pre-internet era will have little relevance to the way Australians choose to work in the not so distant future.

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Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson

Ben is the CEO of Employment Innovations (EI), which holds over two decades experience helping Australian businesses navigate the legal and administrative challenges of being an employer.

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