Public servants' right to actually work, versus a Dickensian-era employment law

An old legal rule allows employers to keep their employees idle at work.

Imagine you are a cook. You just landed your dream job as a personal chef. You arrive at your employer’s home ready to impress but receive a message saying your employers will dine out. You take the wages left on the kitchen bench and leave disappointed. The same thing happens again every day of your first week of work until, finally, you snap, threatening to resign unless you are given an opportunity to cook. Your employer replies: “Provided I pay my cook her wages regularly, she cannot complain if I choose to take any or all of my meals out.”

These words, quipped by judge Lord Cyril Asquith, reflect a general rule developed by British courts in the mid-19th century: an employer has no obligation to provide their employees with work. Why, though, you might joke, would an employee ever ask their employer for more work?

Imagine a month passed and you still haven’t cooked for Asquith. Deciding enough is enough, you interview for a new position and are asked to prepare a steak. You overcook it. When employees are denied the opportunity to perform the job they were hired for, they will lose skills – whether those are the skills of a chef or a capable public servant. This old rule is particularly concerning in the modern era, when the job market is competitive and prospective employers almost always want details of a candidate’s experience.

Public servants are among those who might feel this most acutely because their employment, promotions and performance reviews depend heavily on meeting performance targets and metrics. It is easy to see how an Australian Public Service career could be derailed when a public servant is denied work. Additionally, given it is difficult to terminate government employment, some managers might be tempted to simply stop giving their employees work instead.

Fortunately, the courts are sympathetic to employees in this predicament. Numerous exceptions were developed to address the problems arising from this rule, typically taking the form of implied terms in employment contracts.

First, the courts have held that employment contracts for public performers – including actors, sport stars or even cartoonists – impliedly require the employer to give their employee reasonable opportunities to perform. However, given few people conduct their careers in the public eye, the value of this exception is limited.

Second, courts have found that contracts for skilled employees contain a limited requirement to provide a reasonable amount of work. This exception applies to apprentices, trainees and professionals with continuing practice obligations (it’s not the first time lawyers carved out an exception for themselves). However, this caveat is not a blanket obligation to provide work – as Arnold Mann, a surgeon in Canberra, discovered in 1981 when the court found his employer was not required to provide him with patients to operate on when no patients needed operations (Mann v ACT Health Commission).

Third, when an employee receives performance-based pay, courts have found employers must provide a reasonable amount of actual work. This exception most commonly applies to employees who receive a proportion of their pay from commission. The amount of work an employer is required to offer will depend on the circumstances, but, generally, courts have found the obligation is to provide enough work to give them an opportunity to earn a commission.

Fourth, when an employee is appointed to perform specific duties, courts have found that a failure to provide work of the kind contemplated amounts to a breach of contract. For example, if it is contrary to the contract of a chief executive to undertake general office cleaning, it follows that it is also against their contract to not have work at all. This is highly relevant in the APS, given federal government employees are frequently employed to positions with well-defined duties and obligations.

There are other reasons why these rules are particularly applicable to public servants. APS employees must adhere to obligations found in the Public Service Act’s code of conduct. It is unclear how these obligations might affect the general rule’s application in this context. The code could be interpreted as a two-way street: if the public servant must perform work effectively, then the public service must provide work to be effectively performed. Alternatively, if a public service manager fails to give an employee work, the manager may breach the code by failing to ensure “effective performance from each employee”. The employee could then lodge a code of conduct report against their manager.

An extra option open to an employee who finds themselves denied work is to pursue a complaint under workplace bullying and harassment protections. Though legally speaking these protections are not exceptions to the general rule, practically workplace bullying and denials of work can go hand-in-hand. There are several remedies available to bullying victims, including stop bullying orders. If it is accepted that denying an employee work constitutes bullying, it follows that a stop bullying order could take the form of an order to provide them with work.

It would be fair to question the purpose of this old rule if judges are going to find exceptions at every turn. The High Court itself has expressed similar sentiments. In 2005, justices Ian Callinan and Dyson Heydon queried “the current relevance of judicial pronouncements made more than 60 years ago in the United Kingdom”.

Given the right case, it is possible Asquith’s quip will be overruled. But, until that time, a little piece of Dickensian England remains part of Australian employment law. Indeed, employees asking for work might feel a little like Oliver Twist asking the master for more gruel.

John Wilson is the managing legal director at Bradley Allen Love Lawyers and an accredited specialist in industrial relations and employment law. He thanks Robert Allen and Kieran Pender for their help in preparing this article. 

First published in the Canberra Times.