The Senate inquiry into the future of work and workers is only weeks away from reporting, after 151 submissions and eight days of public hearings in capital cities. The committee was asked to assess the impact of technological and other change on the future of work and workers in Australia, with particular reference to:
- the future earnings, job security, employment status and working patterns of Australians;
- the different impact of that change on Australians, particularly on regional Australians, depending on their demographic and geographic characteristics;
- the wider effects of that change on inequality, the economy, government and society;
- the adequacy of Australia’s laws, including industrial relations laws and regulations, policies and institutions to prepare Australians for that change.
Submissions vary enormously, with some such as AirTasker seeing it as an opportunity to advertise their work and others such as the joint submission of the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation making an offering more suitable for an industrial hearing.
But others were more interesting. Here’s a selection.
Technological developments such as assistive technologies, telepractice, robotics, virtual reality, and developments in medical instrumentation and imaging are already transforming intervention options, role definitions, relationships between professionals, service delivery practices, and approaches to learning.
Speech Pathology Australia recognises that telepractice may address some of the issues of inequity of access to speech pathology services in Australia and that demand for this service delivery model is increasing. It is critical that the outcomes from speech pathology services using telepractice are at least comparable to current clinical care. In addition telepractice services may offer the opportunity to enhance existing models of care. Speech Pathology Australia acknowledges that the evidence-base for telepractice is rapidly evolving and that as technology and communication infrastructure becomes more sophisticated and accessible this evidence-base will continue to grow.
Live Well Tasmania, an NGO with a mission to help youth achieve wellbeing via a whole of community wellbeing approach, said:
Having meaningful work is a vital part of health and wellbeing. There is a crisis of disconnection from meaningful work that has significant consequences for our future. Technological development means that work can now be a means for every person to discover their ‘calling’ or ‘comparative advantage’
The changing nature of work has had profound consequences which include the trend for a reduction in private sector jobs focusing on producing material goods, due to a combination of automation – one crucial consequence of which is that we now have a ‘post-scarce’ society, we can produce all the material goods we need with a fraction of the workforce we once did (Streithorst, 2013), and a lack of demand because of low wages also reduces employment. Secondly currently and into the future work opportunities require ‘21st Century’ skills, and hence transformation of educational systems. Whether it is considered the major priority of policy is to increase global competitiveness, or address social, economic and environmental sustainability, the policy recommendation is the same – we must invest in people, including in our capacity to be innovative and engage in lifelong learning
Given the above points, a job guarantee (especially for our youth) is essential for well-functioning societies. Community-led projects, in particular using schemes like Time Banks, can address many of the issues mentioned above. They are also an effective means of managing job guarantee programs. It is in community settings that the multiple barriers many disadvantaged and long-term unemployed experience can also be addressed.
The main conclusion of this submission is that the changed conditions of today’s world such as post-industrialism including high levels of automation, mean we can now focus work on things like health and education, which dramatically affect quality of life.
- A priority is to address the many challenges we currently face in mobilising the significant potential every person has to contribute to a sustainable future, and to take advantage of the investing in people in ways that prepare us for the future and to steer society towards this better future. In some respects, it is a moot point of how many jobs will be made redundant by technology; the main assumption of this submission is that no amount of unemployment is justifiable.
- We need bold changes to the way we ensure everyone has both economic security, and meaningful work or other means of contributing productively to society in a way that supports individual feelings of worth and hence mental health. A job guarantee, if structured in a way that recognises the legacy of previous systems on people’s expectations, capabilities and needs, can satisfy both of these. We have reached a point in technological development where we can decouple economic security and our contribution to a sustainable society via work.
The Centre for Future Work is part of the Australia Institute. After a fairly standard submission regarding education and training, it offered more.
- The need to broaden the definition of “employer” in labour law and employment regulations, so that digital intermediaries and other new business models cannot escape their normal responsibilities.
- The need for limits on electronic systems for employee surveillance and discipline, to protect workers’ privacy, and ensure that normal due processes are followed in discipline and discharge.
- Extending rights to collectively negotiate the terms, timing, and effects of technological change in workplaces, including right for unions to negotiate over training, adjustment, and transition measures.
- Emphasis on facilitating a reduction in lifetime working hours (including shorter regular hours, greater opportunity for family, education and long-service leaves, and early retirement options), and measures to provide greater stability in working hours for part-time and irregular jobs.
- Revitalisation of sector-wide labour regulation and negotiation institutions, including strengthening the awards system to play a leading role in wage trends, and permitting sector-wide and pattern bargaining.
In sum, the common, defeatist conclusion that the quantity and quality of work is out of our collective control, driven instead by inexorable forces of technology and competition, is quite wrong. Society absolutely retains the power to set clear rules, benchmarks, and expectations regarding how technology is applied, and how work is organised. We can attain a future of great work, great living conditions, and strong families and communities, if we are willing to exercise this power to build an effective, inclusive labour market.
Google largely sees automation as beneficial, arguing that:
- The total number of workdays lost to injuries sustained from physical work in the Australian economy could fall by 11% to 1.7 million in 2030.
- Workers currently engaged in more automatable tasks have lower job satisfaction. If current automation trends persist, it is estimated that 62% of low-skilled workers will be happier in their jobs by 2030 compared with today.
- Australian wage data shows that the least automatable tasks are typically the best paid. An hour of non-automatable work pays 20% higher wages than an hour of automatable work.
The ACTU calls its submission ‘Greater inequality and insecurity unless we act’:
The OECD has found that globalisation and technology have already had a mutually-reinforcing effect of hollowing out the labour market, showing a decline in middle-skill/middle pay jobs in advanced countries throughout the OECD and a rise in low-skill/low pay and high-skill/ high pay jobs. Highly-skilled workers have tended to benefit relatively more from technological change, whilst the share of employment in middle-skilled jobs has decreased. Low and medium-skilled workers are most at risk of technological displacement and job polarisation. There is a real risk of an exacerbation of the trend towards lower job quality in the middle and bottom of the labour market. Strong unions are essential in ameliorating these polarising effects. OECD research confirms, for example, that “stronger unions reduce the effect of ICT [information and communications technology] on bottom polarisation.”
Exacerbation of inequality
One reason that, without intervention, technological change is likely to exacerbate income inequality is the opportunities it provides for circumnavigating labour standards. Another is because technology and automation tend to substitute for routine tasks but complement non-routine cognitive tasks. This tends to support job polarisation as routine tasks exist in jobs requiring low and middle levels of education but routine tasks are even more prevalent in the middle educated (and middle earning) group of workers. Non-routine, non-manual work tends to be unaffected by growth in ICT, whereas those industries that experience the fastest growth in ICT tend to have the fastest falls in demand for workers with intermediate education levels. In addition, in an environment where worker’s power is low, the benefits from technology-driven productivity improvements are likely to continue to go disproportionately to capital owners rather than workers, thereby exacerbating both income and wealth inequality.
[An] Australian study, by Hugh-Whyte et al. published by CEDA in 2015 … conclude[s] that occupations most likely to be affected include labourers, machinery operators, drivers and clerical workers, whilst personal service workers and professionals are least likely to be affected, although some particular jobs in these groupings are still at high risk of automation. Overall, they contend professional, technical and creative jobs are least susceptible to automation. The researchers’ preliminary analysis suggests jobs in outer urban areas have a higher probability of computerisation than inner urban areas and regional areas are more susceptible still, particularly regional areas with high dependence on mining such as in Western Australia and Queensland.
So … there is no doubt that technological change will bring about changes in the workforce. How quickly? That’s hard to assess, but Google points out that most changes take place more slowly than we expect in the short term, and more quickly than we expect over the medium to longer term. Will the changes be useful? On the whole, yes? But will benefits be distributed equally? Probably not. They usually aren’t.
It’s too late to make a submission, but such an inquiry is only an early stage of the political process. And the political process will be a huge factor in how these changes play out. There’s plenty of time yet to make your thoughts known, and plenty of ways to do it.