The Federal Government is framing its workplace relations election policy around the “future of work”, declaring the current system is “stuck in the past” and has not kept up with fundamentally different ways of doing business as represented by disruptors such as Uber and Airtasker.
However, it has stressed that any reforms “cannot compromise” Australia’s “strong safety net”.
Speaking today at a breakfast seminar hosted by Thomson Reuters and Lander & Rogers, employment minister Senator Michaelia Cash declared that “the future of work is upon us” but that “regulation very much is quite restrictive in terms of where the new economy is going”.
Cash cited the CSIRO’s recently released “Tomorrow’s Workforce” report, which predicted about 40% of Australia’s current jobs face a high probability of being automated over the next 15 years. The report also indicated there are “so many jobs that are going to be upon us in the next five, 10, 15, 20 years that we haven’t thought of yet”.
Cash acknowledged these changes were “exciting” but also “a little bit scary”.
But “whether or not we like it, it is a reality”, she said. “It is a reality in particular for govt”. Cash noted other countries, particularly China, were already embracing the future of work.
“If we are to remain a globally competitive economy it’s not a choice for us, we have to ensure out systems and our regulation respond appropriately.”
‘Flexibility’ the new buzzword for the future
When talking about the future of work and innovation, Cash said there was “a key word that we’re all going to become incredibly familiar with – and that is ‘flexibility'”.
That was particularly so for the next generation of worker.
“They don’t know what 9-5 means,” Cash said. “They do know, however, what 24/7 means and they know a lot of it is not actually going to be in an office. It’s going to be where I want it to be on that piece of technology you give me that is going to enable me to stay constantly connected to my workplace.”
For businesses to embrace these future opportunities but at the same time give employees “what they want going forward – which is not a 9-5 job necessarily”, Cash said “the IR system is going to have to change”.
Although the Fair Work Act offered individual flexibility agreements Cash said they were not being utilised by employees or employers and that “as a govt we need to give serious consideration to the Productivity Commission (PC) to ensure flexibility is going to be utilised in the system”.
She said the Govt would provide a policy response to the PC’s WR report in the lead up to the July 2 election. But the two issues she looked at when considering its recommendations were:
- any impact on the strong safety net; and
- whether an identified problem was a disincentive to employment, and whether the proposed solution removed that disincentive.
Strong safety net a ‘number one priority’
Cash said the Govt had four priorities when looking at workplace relations reform:
- Need for a system that promotes jobs and productivity.
Cash noted the IR framework needed to provide incentives to prevent long-term unemployment, especially for youth who were experiencing as much as 20-30% unemployment in some areas. Cash said that could breed long-term, inter-generational issues if not addressed.
- Need for a ‘future-focused’ WR system.
Cash (above) noted that she recently hosted a roundtable with Uber represented on it.
“It was fascinating to listen to Uber, the way they do business and where they see themselves going versus others at the table who very much worked within the current system,” she said.
“I think everyone left that meeting, looking at Uber and going ‘Wow, you are the reality of where the future of work is going’.”
- A strong safety net
“We need to ensure that we respond to that [new business] reality while at the same time, and this is very much a fundamental premise for this govt … [that] we always have a strong safety net.”
“In fact, that should almost be the number one priority we park over here – because everything else cannot compromise that strong safety net.”
- Women’s participation
Cash said she was focused on increasing women’s workforce participation and the “IR system has a great role to play in that”.
She flagged affordable, accessible and flexible childcare as “the number one issue” to ensure participation and allow women and families to “make decisions they want to make about their working life”.
Cash also highlighted “flexible workplaces” need to be “the norm for everybody”. She said she wanted more men to put their hand up for a nine-day fortnight so that when women request it “no one blinks twice”.
It was also important to ensure men weren’t channeled into higher paid occupations and women into lower paid ones. “Why aren’t we going out there encouraging men to go into the non-traditional roles with the lower-paid salaries, like nursing and teaching. You’ve got to have a two-way exchange there.”
New jobs ‘outside of traditional employment relationship’
Cash said Australia was at a “fundamental turning point”. “This is not so much a political argument between Liberal and Labor – this is a realisation that, as a country that wants to participate in a global economy, we are transitioning.”
Producers and consumers were finding new ways to find one another, she said, with most of it online and outside of the traditional employment relationship that the current WR system focused on. “I don’t think we can just regulate tomorrow as I don’t think we understand yet what those relationships are,” she said. “But we do need to acknowledge the inflexibility in the current system, the disincentives to employment … while at the same time possibly having a conversation as Australians as to where the next IR system is going to take us.”
Written by Workforce editor David Marin-Guzman
(This story first ran in Workforce 20005, 22 April, 2016)
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