The Guardian May 10, 2000


Historic case for outworkers' rights

by Magda Hansson

The Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union (TCFU) has begun Federal Court 
proceedings against several clothing companies on behalf of eight Victorian 
outworkers. The claim is for the payment of award entitlements for the 
outworkers who have been employed for periods ranging from six weeks to 21 
years. This is an historic test case, the first time in Australia and 
perhaps the world, that outworkers will claim their legal award 
entitlements.

The companies involved include AKF Clothing, Glenda Clothing, Cupid 
Bridalwear, Ebony Lace, Blue Calix and Pelaco. Pelaco is not a direct 
employer of these workers but is supplied with clothing manufactured by 
them through the other suppliers.

Since the Kennett Government abolished all state awards in 1992 outworkers 
have been covered by a Federal award.

In the state awards of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and 
Tasmania, outworkers are classed as employees and entitled to annual leave, 
public holidays, superannuation, overtime and other protections from 
extreme exploitation.

However, unscrupulous employers will go to great lengths to set up sham 
arrangements to avoid their responsibilities to their workers.

In the case of outworkers, employers usually advertise in the ethnic press 
and require interviewees to demonstrate their sewing skills in their 
factories.

If satisfied with the demonstration, the worker will then be required to 
take out a business registration, which is usually described as a 
"licence".

The employers set all the conditions and pace of work. Workers have got no 
control over how much work they do, when they do it, how much they are paid 
for it, if at all.

In order to meet the unrealistic times set to complete the work family 
members, including children, are often engaged to meet these deadlines at 
no cost to the employers.

One worker in the test case was paid $3.50 per hour for work done in the 
factory and her home and two other workers have not been paid at all for 
their work.

One of the workers for Blue Calix and their family had to move house 
because of fears of retribution for the temerity of asking for their wages. 
This resulted in further financial hardship.

In a week where the minimum wage has just risen to $400.40 per week these 
most vulnerable workers are receiving nothing like that.

The TCFU is challenging the premise that these outworkers are contractors 
simply because employers call them contractors.

The outworkers want the protection of the award and to be correctly 
classified as employees.

An alternative argument is for the court to find them independent 
contractors but entitled to fair contracts and the same entitlements as 
other employees.

The union is very optimistic that it will achieve pay justice.

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