Briefing Note Summary
There are an estimated 1,344 franchise networks in Australia.
537,000+ employees remain at serious distorted risk of unfair practices by their franchisors.
At-risk franchisees also need and deserve better protection within their franchise agreements.
The difficulty for any small business in correcting a wrong is the balance of power against them and the cost of seeking redress.
Protections afforded to new vehicle dealership agreements should be extended to other franchise categories.
Reforms need to be implemented to ensure at-risk franchisees gain protections upon the imminent renewal of thousands of franchise agreements in the new year.
Franchisees at high risk
It is estimated there are 1,344 franchise networks in Australia, with 98,000+ individual franchised outlets, employing more than 598,000 people. The segment generates approximately $184B annually, about 14% of the total Australian GDP. The demographics range from typically sole trader or partnership family businesses with basic knowledge of business practices to more significant, sophisticated entities that may benefit from university-qualified people at the helm or close by.
The common trait of all these businesses is that they are relatively substantial investments for the owners, considering their wealth and resources. Often, they are a family’s entire multi-generational or lifetime savings being put at risk. Outside of franchisees now protected under Part 5 of the 2021 Regulations, 94,000+ franchisee businesses with 537,000+ employees remain at serious distorted risk of unfair practices by their franchisors. A great majority of these are small and family businesses.
These at-risk franchisees also need and deserve better protection within their franchise agreements. The vast majority of these franchisees will not have:
- Any umbrella association protecting or advocating for their interests;
- A sophisticated understanding of business;
- High-level advice readily available in their business organisation; or
- Significant funds available to fight for a fair outcome when they are victims of a franchisor.
Resolving an imbalance of power
Changes introduced by the Morrison Government began in June 2020, implementing a separate ‘Part’ in the franchise code regulations that focused on balancing the ‘new motor vehicle’ franchise sector. The new ‘Part 5’ sets automotive franchising as distinct from general franchising. However, the automotive dealer sector made it clear that Part 5 did not go far enough.
In July 2021, the Morrison Government moved further in the Competition and Consumer (Industry Codes— Franchising) Regulation 2014 (the ‘2021 Regulations’) to balance the power of franchisors and franchisees. Significant reforms to the regulations were made that assist all franchisees and provide better guidance for all franchisors. However, the vast majority of improvements are directed at the motor car retail industry. The changes resulted from the widely reported treatment of dealers by several prominent motor vehicle manufacturers. The changes were also based on several reviews of the Franchise Code in the past decade.
Since July 2021, the government has continued consultation with the motor industry through a discussion paper to seek further views and feedback on the changes in the 2021 Regulations and what else might be needed.
Considering the relative upfront investment, property leases, equipment requirements, and ongoing fees for these franchisees, contrasted with their wealth, it is arguable that many of the protections afforded to new vehicle dealership agreements should be extended to other franchise categories such as beauty, business services, education, financial services, food & drink, health & fitness, home services, printing, retail, and travel.
These other types of franchisees also deserve protection on
- A franchisor closing or materially changing the business model;
- Compensation when mistreated in business changes;
- Repurchase of stock;
- Any clause that might seek to exclude compensation by a franchisor;
- Opportunity to earn a reasonable return on investment during the term of the franchise; and
- End of term obligations.
A number of highly-publicised disputes involving franchisor groups and franchisees in recent years highlight the fact that the issues are more widespread than the motor vehicle sector alone.
The difficulty for any small business in correcting a wrong is the balance of power against them and the cost of seeking redress. Many franchisees caught up in disputes would not have been in the position of having to seek judicial assistance if regulations were in place to prevent poor behaviours. The franchise reform of the past two years has seen significant balancing of power in ‘new vehicle dealership’ agreements. However, these are agreements for dealers that sell just new passenger vehicles and new light goods vehicles.
There are many franchisees still at risk outside of the new passenger new light goods vehicle sectors that really should be covered in a broadened ‘Automotive’ Part 5 or a separate Code.
Part 5 only protects motor dealers who sell new passenger vehicles or new light goods vehicles.
The definitions in the 2021 Regulations provide examples of a motor vehicle as a (a) motor car; (b) motorcycle; (c) tractor; (d) motorised farm machinery; (e) motorised construction machinery; (f) aircraft; or (g) motorboat.
The definition in the same regulations for a new vehicle dealership agreement excludes (b) through (g) above. It limits the scope of Part 5 to just new passenger vehicles and new light goods vehicles.
Therefore motorcycle, tractor, motorised farm machinery, motorised construction machinery, aircraft, and motorboat dealer agreements remain outside the scope of the protections, despite for some reason their products being named as motor vehicles in the 2021 Regulations definitions. Arguably, all of the protections afforded to new vehicle dealership agreements should be extended to
other categories of ‘vehicle’.
Similarly, dealers for trucks of all sizes, forklifts etc., are not protected, despite their infrastructure and investment often being as substantial as a motor car dealer.
None of the changes that have been made in 2021, or that may be made following the discussion paper on the 2021 Regulations, will take effect in a franchisee agreement until an agreement is newly entered or renewed. Therefore, there will be thousands of franchisees that entered agreements before July 2021 that will have no better protection until a renewal is struck – perhaps as long as five years
Likewise, any delay in further improvement to regulations will see thousands of more franchisees in other franchise categories being offered poor agreements and potentially subjected to continuing poor behaviour by franchisors. Planned reforms must be expedited so that intended changes cover any renewed or new Franchise agreements. These reforms must be completed, if at all possible, by the end of this calendar year.
- Broaden the Automotive Part 5 of the Competition and Consumer (Industry Codes— Franchising) Regulation 2014 (the ‘2021 Regulations’) to at least cover all motor vehicles. Especially truck, motorcycle, farm machinery, construction machinery, and forklift franchises.
- Expedite the reforms to ensure at-risk franchisees gain protections upon the imminent renewal of thousands of franchise agreements during 2022.
- Consider the extension of some or all of the identified protections into other franchise categories.