September 25, 2018

Hope is not a strategy – our shared responsibility for the future of work and workers

The Australian Senate Select Committee on Future Work and Works have released their report.

The questions this committee was charged with are complex; arguably few concepts are more complex and less tangible than ‘the future’.

Starting from first principles, work is an integral part of life for most adult Australians. At a fundamental level, the work that we do pays for the necessities of life and determines our standard of living. It is also part of our identity, has the capacity to be engaging and a source of satisfaction, or to be a source of uncertainty and stress. The availability and stability of decent work and decent pay is important on an individual, family and community level. The social and economic success of our society depends on this.

This inquiry takes place in the context of varied forces shaping our society and the world of work—increasing globalisation, geopolitical factors in our region and beyond, climate change and an ageing population among them. The challenge for our government in this contextual setting is to build on the solid economic and social foundations of our society for the benefit of all Australians.

But the reality is that our prosperity is not being shared fairly, and some people’s futures are less certain than others’ through no fault of their own. Inequality is rising in Australia, and Australians are not all reaping the rewards of our economic prosperity. What first caught the attention of unions and welfare advocates—concern about low wages and inequality—is finally becoming a broader conversation, with the Reserve Bank Governor warning that stagnant wages are impacting on our quality of life and sense of prosperity, and have the potential to impede economic growth.

Furthermore, there is increasing evidence to suggest that our workplace laws, designed to provide a balanced framework for cooperative and productive workplace relations, have failed to keep pace with emerging trends, such as the rise in non-standard work. Casual work, labour hire, sham contracting, the gig economy—these have all become terms which are familiar to growing numbers of Australians. But they are more than mere words. They are forms of work which in certain guises reduce workers’ rights and protections, and often deny workers access to basic rights and conditions that workers and unions have fought hard for.

Against this backdrop, the world of work is again being transformed by technology. Debate around new technology has reignited decades-old concerns about automation and artificial intelligence, the fear of a dystopian future where human workers are replaced by machines. The anxiety some people may feel is understandable; after all, technological development only ever goes in one direction—forward. However, the history of humankind is defined by change. Humans have harnessed technology every step of the way, from the first tools used in hunting for food, to robotics and automation today. On the macro level, technology has been our friend, not our foe.

It would be a mistake, however, to see ‘the future of work’ as only being about technological change. There are already significant changes happening in our workplaces, caused by factors beyond technological change—for example the emergence of new industries and changes caused by labour market deregulation—and they need to be dealt with, just as much as preparing for further technological change. Many of the emerging challenges, such as those presented by the gig economy and automation, are in fact new versions of challenges we have had to address in the past, such as worker exploitation and earlier technological change.

This inquiry has benefitted enormously from the thoughtful and considered evidence presented by a large number of respected stakeholders. The answers to the complex questions this committee has examined are not easy or straightforward. One thing is clear though and is the message this committee hears loud and clear: we are the architects of our future. We have choices to make. We can allow technological and other forms of change to occur without meaningful parameters, which could result in unintended consequences and lead to worsening inequality. Alternatively, we can choose to undertake intelligent interventions to guide the changing nature of work. The conversations we have the governments we elect, the laws and policies we design, the institutions we establish, the education we invest in—the decisions we make today—this is what will determine the future of this country and its people.

We are a capable nation, and rich in so many ways. We must not allow ourselves to be buffeted by change—to be reactive rather than creative, reactionary rather than visionary, to be guided by fear rather than optimism. The committee calls on the Australian Government to consider the evidence and recommendations contained in this report, to act constructively and with optimism in the policies it enacts. To set a course for fairness and shared prosperity.


Select Commitee on the Future of Work and Workers