Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 September 2018


Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers; Report

6:15 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I present the report of the Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers, together with the Hansard recording of proceedings and documents presented to the committee, and move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I seek leave to make my remarks on this. I understand there has been agreement across the chamber for that to happen and carry us past 6.17 pm.

Leave granted.

I thank the chamber for allowing this debate to continue so that we can discuss this report. I've been very pleased, over the last nearly 12 months, to chair a select committee into what is a very important topic facing Australia and Australians, and that is what the future of work holds for all of us. It is a big, complex issue. It embraces many different features, ranging from the risk and opportunities to jobs from automation, robots, artificial intelligence and other technologies to other issues which are affecting Australian workplaces. I would like, at the outset, to thank the secretariat for this committee, who have worked incredibly hard to bring this report to its conclusion. I'd like to thank the other members of the committee and all who have submitted and participated in this inquiry.

The title we've given to this report is Hope is not a strategyour shared responsibility for the future of work and workers. We need a shared vision and a shared effort to protect the future of work and workers for all of us. The reason why we settled on that title is that the changes that are facing Australian workplaces and Australian workers are so great that sitting back and letting it all happen to us is a recipe for disaster and is a recipe for widening inequality in our society, and that is something that I think most Australians don't want to see happen.

The overarching theme of this report, really, is that the future of work is in our hands. There are people out there in the community who think that the way technology and robots are advancing spells disaster for Australian workers, will eliminate all jobs and will also create changes in workplaces which will result in workers being disadvantaged and inequality widening. It doesn't have to be that way. This is something that we as legislators and policymakers have the capacity to manage into the future if we choose to take the opportunity, such that all Australian workers can benefit from changes that lie ahead rather than being thrown on the scrap heap, as we have sometimes seen occur.

There is no doubt that things in Australian workplaces are changing significantly and, arguably, at a greater pace than anything we have ever seen previously. But this is not a new phenomenon; this is not the first time that we've seen technology changing work in Australia and changing workplaces. A few decades ago, the vast majority of the Australian public were employed in agriculture. That has changed over the years as machines have been introduced and jobs have been eliminated. But, at the same time, new jobs have been created in new industries. The key here, really, is to ensure that we as legislators introduce the laws, policies and institutions within government to ensure that the benefits and costs of change, whether that be from technology or other features of what is happening around the world, are shared and that the costs are shared across the community rather than having a small group of people reap the profits, both literally and metaphorically, of this change while the majority of people are left behind. That is a choice that we have before us, and we have the opportunity to come up with a future and to come up with laws, policies and institutions which will share those benefits and share those costs equally across the community.

I think one of the other messages that came through really strongly in this inquiry was that the countries that do manage change in the future are the countries that will do better. I have to say there are a number of other countries around the world—I'm particularly thinking of places like Canada, Singapore and Germany—that are doing a much better job than Australia of grappling with what change is coming our way in the workplace and what we need to do about it.

One of the key recommendations of our report is simply that Australia, and the Australian government, needs to come up with a plan for the future of work. We need to engage with these issues rather than continuing the approach that the government has taken up until now of just standing back and letting change happen. There is no greater example in recent years than the closure of the car industry in Australia. The government stood by, let it happen and, in some cases, even encouraged it. That is not what we need from our government. We need a government that is prepared to get in there and work with industry, unions and educational institutions to forecast where jobs growth is going to be and where jobs are in danger of being replaced by automation and other things and come up with a plan to ensure that workers are protected through those changes and are assisted to make any transitions that may be required. In doing so, we have to recognise that there are particular groups in the community—women, workers with a disability, workers from multicultural backgrounds, regional workers—who are particularly exposed to risk. This national plan really has to come up with ways to ensure that people in those groups are not just protected but are actually given opportunities into the future as well.

The committee has recommended that a new government body coordinate the efforts of government in this space. It was very clear from one of the hearings that we held in Canberra, where we had representatives of various different departments—who all gave good evidence and are clearly doing the best that they can in this space—that there is no-one within government who is coordinating this approach to forecast and develop policy to ensure a bright future for Australian workers into the future. We have recommended a new central body, loosely called 'the future work commission', be created to take on this task. That is something that we are seeing happen in other countries and something that we think the Australian government should adopt as well. That new government body shouldn't just be sitting off to the side. It needs collaboration with businesses, unions and educational institutions to work out where the jobs of the future are going to be, where the growth is, where the decline is and what courses are being offered by higher education and VET institutions to make sure that we have a workforce that is equipped to fill these jobs. They need to start talking to each other to come up with a shared vision and some policies that we can all get behind.

In the time available, I won't be able to speak at length about a number of the other recommendations, but there are two other features I want to focus on. It would be a really big mistake for people to think that the future of work is all about robots and technology. The reality is that Australian workplaces have been changing significantly, particularly over the last 20 years, as a result of the labour market deregulation that we've seen, particularly under this government. That is resulting in a growing group of have-nots in the Australian workplace.

Evidence to the inquiry demonstrated that we now have a record number of Australians in non-standard work, whether that be casuals, labour hire, contract or gig-economy kind of work. The numbers continue to grow. These are the people who are being faced with worse employment conditions, worse pay and worse job security. It's no surprise that, because of that, we're seeing wages in Australia stagnate under this government at a level we have never seen in Australian history. It is a direct result of the deregulation of the labour market that we have seen from this government. It's got to be fixed if we want to make sure that the Australian public has a decent standard of living into the future. We have made a number of specific recommendations for legislative change, including requiring employers to consult more with unions and workers about the introduction of technology into workplaces and also to broaden the definition of 'employees' to pick up gig-economy workers, who are currently being subject to unfair working conditions.

Obviously the education and skills system also has a critical role to play here. We need to make sure that Australians are being provided with the skills and knowledge that they will need for jobs in the future. That's partly about working with schools, universities and VET institutions about new graduates to make sure they're ready for the new world of work; but also, importantly, we're not doing nearly enough for people in the existing workforce to make sure that their skills keep up with what is required by industry and the economy of the future. We don't want to see a future where mature-age workers particularly are thrown on the scrap heap, as we've seen all too often in Australia's history, and are not provide with the skills and opportunities that they need to ensure that they can have a productive working life for the rest of their lives.

Overall we are optimistic for the future. Australia can seize technology, can create new jobs and can make sure that everyone has a fair go in the Australian workplace. But it is up to us as legislators. Hope is not a strategy; we have to take action. I hope this government is up to the task.

Question agreed to.


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