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Contracting and the Underground Economy


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Morley Surcon By Morley Surcon,
Vice-President, Western Canada at Eagle

The Underground Economy Doesn’t Apply to Independent IT Contractors… Or does it??

The Underground Economy Doesn't Apply to Independent IT Contractors... Or does it??The topic of Canada’s underground economy seems to be raised again and again over the course of years and tends to come in waves — we’re seeing one now.  In the last week alone, I’ve read several newspaper articles and even heard it on my drive in on the News Talk radio station that I listen to.

What is the “underground economy”?  Sounds pretty sinister and, I suppose, parts of it might be, but it’s a lot more common than most people realize.  The CRA defines the underground economy as:

The underground economy is any activity that is unreported or under-reported for tax and GST/HST purposes. Often called “moonlighting” or “working under the table,” it can include bartering, failing to file tax returns, omitting an entire business activity from your tax return, “skimming” a portion of business income from what you report on your taxes, and not reporting a portion of employment income like tips and gratuities.

Generally, any income you earn is taxable and you have to report it on your tax return. If you don’t file your tax return or register your business for GST/HST when you’re supposed to, or you don’t report all of your income, you are participating in the underground economy.

So, by this definition, it is the guy down the street that does landscaping on the side; it’s the waiter who pockets your tip without claiming it as income; it’s the small business that accepts cash without putting it through the till.  Various newspaper articles estimate Canada’s underground economy to be worth between $42 Billion and $46 Billion — in aggregate, not a small amount.  That’s a lot of tax that is not being collected and everyone from the CRA to Chartered Accountants are looking at ways to curb these practices.  I’ve seen ideas ranging from legislating restaurants to track and report tip money on T-4’s to instituting a reward program for leads that result in $10,000 or more in taxes collected. (This latter already exists. CRA’s program is called the “Informant Leads Program” and, apparently, some of the most common “sources” of leads come from ex-business partners and divorced spouses).

As the economy is suffering and government spending is being spread very thin, this missing tax revenue is being highly coveted by government. But this doesn’t impact professional and/or technology contractors, does it?  After all, most are hired via a well-defined contract and have clear paper trails including time sheets, invoices and remittances.  The answer to that question is yes.  Well, maybe.  Certainly the paper trail will help in the case of an audit but by the time there’s an audit, the pain is already being felt.

Independent contractors (IT, Finance/Accounting, Engineering, etc.) should have concerns that the government may take a broad-brush approach to contractors/temporary labour in general; lumping them all together without full consideration for their differences.  This is one reason that Eagle belongs to (and has taken leadership in) such industry organizations as ACSESS and the NACCB, which are staffing industry associations who are actively lobbying the Canadian and Provincial governments on behalf of the industry and the contractors that are a part of it.

If you wish to learn more about the underground economy in Canada, I’ve attached links to some recent new articles below.  Let me know your thoughts on this issue by leaving a comment below!