5 ways the ATO is tackling the black economy

Have you heard of the black economy but don’t really know what it is or how it impacts you and your business? Well, you’re not alone!

What is the black economy?

The black economy includes dishonest and criminal activities that happen outside the tax system, and those who try to misuse or abuse it. It encompasses many elements, from the under-reporting of income and non-payment of superannuation through to serious criminal activities such as money laundering, illicit tobacco and the illegal drug trade.

By avoiding their tax obligations, people participating in the black economy have an unfair advantage, allowing them to undercut people doing the right thing. This undermines community confidence and puts pressure on the margins of honest businesses, directly affecting their profitability and livelihood.

The Black Economy Taskforce estimated the economic impact of the black economy could be as large as $50 billion in lost revenue each year. That’s money which could have gone to funding schools, hospitals, infrastructure and other public services.

It’s a huge impact on all Australians.

A person wearing a green top holds a handful of $50 notes.

So, what is the ATO doing about it?

To tackle the black economy head-on, the government announced a series of new measures, including many that came into effect from 1 July. The ATO plays a leading role in delivering much of this work as part of the Black Economy Program. It’s all about protecting honest businesses from competitors who are trying to get ahead by avoiding their tax obligations.

Let’s take a closer look at five of these measures and how they could affect your business and how you can work with the ATO to fight the black economy.

1. Black economy hotline

The new and improved Tax Integrity Centre (TIC) launched on 1 July, provides a single point of contact for reporting suspected or known phoenix, tax evasion, and black economy activity. The ATO wants any members of the community to report instances where people might not be doing the right thing.

You are able to tip off the ATO online by using the Tip-Off form available in the ATO app, or by calling the Black Economy hotline on 1800 060 062.

You can report any known or suspected activity where someone is gaining a competitive advantage by intentionally doing the wrong thing. This is not just limited to tax issues. It involves behaviours such as:

  • demanding or paying for work cash in hand to avoid obligations, such as paying employees super
  • not reporting or under-reporting income
  • illegal phoenixing – deliberately liquidating and re-forming a business to avoid obligations
  • over-claiming deductions e.g. paying for home renovations through their business account.

All tip-offs are private and can be anonymous. The ATO only requests contact details in case information provided needs further clarification.

2. The ATO is visiting businesses around Australia

The ATO is visiting businesses around Australia as part of its work to protect honest businesses from unfair competition by addressing black economy activities. While most businesses do the right thing, some get an unfair advantage by not meeting all their tax and superannuation obligations.

As part of this work, the ATO will be visiting up to 10,000 businesses around Australia, each year, for the next 3 years. For businesses that are genuinely trying to do the right thing, the ATO provide education and assistance to help them get back on track. The ATO uses these visits to help identify who needs extra support to make it easier for them to comply.

The ATO visits areas identified as being higher risk. These risks could include:

  • unreported or misrepresented sales
  • omitting income, including missing payments, online transactions
  • lack of record-keeping knowledge (e.g. in terms of sales, expenses, staff, rosters and controls)
  • businesses reporting outside of the small business benchmarks, and
  • businesses that are operating outside the tax system.

If you receive a visit from the ATO, remember that its work is about reducing the opportunity for those getting an unfair advantage and levelling the playing field. The ATO believes all businesses should get a fair go. It has an obligation to the community to investigate further and take the appropriate action if a business is deliberately doing the wrong thing.

ATO teams visited over 10,000 small business across 22 locations in metropolitan, regional and remote areas in the first year.

3. Expansion of the Taxable Payments Reporting System (TPRS)

This change could affect your business. The Taxable Payments Reporting System (TPRS) was first introduced in 2012 in the building and construction industry to help detect those either not reporting or under-reporting their income. The TPRS expansion now means that businesses providing cleaning or courier services will need to report payments made to contractors for cleaning or courier services provided on a business’s behalf.

The TPRS strengthens the ATO’s ability to match income tax returns from contractors against what businesses report paying, allowing it to detect those trying to hide income and evade tax. The success of this system proves that any business trying to evade their obligations, won’t go unnoticed.

If your business engages contractors to provide cleaning or courier services to your customers on your behalf, you may need to lodge a Taxable Payment Annual Report (TPAR). This could apply even where cleaning or courier services are only part of your business’ activities.

Businesses need to report the total payments they made to each contractor or subcontractor for cleaning or courier services in the 2018-19 financial year, the first TPAR is due on 28 August 2019.

The TPRS now also applies in the same way to businesses providing road freight, IT, security, and surveillance or investigation services from 1 July 2019, with their first TPAR due in 2020.

4. Ban on Electronic Sales Suppression Tools (ESSTs)

These tools have been banned since 4 October 2018. Electronic sales suppression tools allow income to be misrepresented and under-reported by:

  • deleting transactions from electronic record-keeping systems
  • changing transactions to reduce the amount of a sale
  • misrepresenting a sales record, for example by allowing GST taxable sales to be re-categorised as GST non-taxable sales
  • falsifying POS records.

It is an offence to produce, supply, possess, or incorrectly keep tax records using an ESST. It is also an offence to knowingly assist others in committing these offences. Penalties up to 5,000 penalty units (currently $1,050,000 as of publication date) can apply.

Business owners need to keep records to explain all transactions, including records created by an electronic POS system.

The transitional period for the ban on possessing ESSTs ended on 3 April. Anyone who possesses, uses, produces or supplies an ESST will be subject to strong action from the ATO as part of the its response to the black economy.

5. Removing deductibility of non-compliant payments

Since 1 July 2019, businesses can only claim deductions for payments they make to their workers (employees or contractors) where they have complied with the PAYG withholding and reporting obligations for that payment. This new measure will take effect for income tax returns covering the current 2019-20 financial year and onwards.

The government will also remove deductions for payments made by businesses to contractors where the contractor does not provide an ABN and the business does not withhold any amount of PAYG, even though withholding requirements apply.

If your business failed to withhold, or failed to report your PAYGW liability, you’ll lose your deduction unless you make a voluntary disclosure to the ATO it starts an audit into your business’s PAYG withholding obligations.

If you made a mistake and withheld an incorrect amount, you won’t lose your deduction. You need to lodge a voluntary disclosure in the approved form to correct your mistake and minimise any penalties.

These are just five ways the ATO is tackling the black economy. Find out more about the black economy and what you can do about it on the ATO website.


Peter Holt

Assistant Commissioner | ATO

Peter Holt is Assistant Commissioner with responsibility for the Black Economy measures program at the Australian Taxation Office. He is chair of the whole of government Black Economy Standing Taskforce. During his career, Peter has played an active role in policy development, law design, risk, governance, audit and assurance across the tax and superannuation systems.