The Labor opposition by way of Anthony Albanese is attempting to come to terms with mass automation of jobs and the so-called ‘gig’ economy where everyone’s a freelancer.
Automation and gig economy job platforms like Uber and Airtasker pose many challenges to unions and the Labor party.
How do you negotiate wages and workplace conditions with transnational labour hire platforms that are essentially algorithms and at best have a small sales and marketing presence in Australia?
How do you buffer the impact of rapid jobs disruption brought on by automation and help re-train and reorient affected workers?
In a speech to a Transport Workers Union national council meeting in Freemantle, WA last week, Mr Albanese demonstrated his party is at least on the game, if not yet overflowing with policy initiatives.
Mr Albanese set the stage for a time when technological change would play havoc with jobs and large scale government intervention would be needed.
“Change can improve our lives. It can free us of certain kinds of labour. It can make life easier in any number of ways,” said Mr Albanese.
“But change is a bit like the free market. If you leave it to its own devices, people can get hurt.
“That is where the state needs to come in. We need to accept that we can’t stop change.
“But we need to manage change so that it serves people, rather than victimising them, particularly working people,” he said.
Labor has obviously watched the election of President Trump with interest.
Job dislocation through automation had a bearing on that result and fear of having your job usurped by technology is growing in the Australian community.
A survey in January of more than 1,000 Australians that was commissioned by Airtasker, found one in six believed their job could be handled by a robot in the next five years.
More than 70 per cent expected that there would be fewer jobs overall because of automation.
Mr Albanese picked well in using an address to the TWU as the setting for a headland speech on technology induced job disruption.
Transport is a sector ripe for serious technological disruption. Autonomous trucks already operate on many Australian mining sites and the advent of driverless trucks on the nation’s highways could be just half a decade away.
One early automation scenario is that trucks will run driverless on the long-haul sections and be piloted by human drivers, possibly remotely, on the dense traffic portions of the journey.
Last year, Uber bought Otto, a San Francisco-based startup that can turn any large truck into a self-driving vehicle.
Otto-equipped trucks can go autonomous on highways and navigate and respond to traffic without human intervention.
Mr Albanese zeroed in on the future of the nation’s 250,000-odd truck, bus and taxi drivers.
“Our friends in the business community are doing their jobs by looking for ways to use technology to cut costs to the benefit of their shareholders,” said Mr Albanese.
“It is a credit to the TWU that you are doing your jobs by thinking about what will happen to the workers who will be displaced by change in coming decades.
“That’s fitting. Your members are in the firing line,” he said.
“If you think Uber was disruptive, consider the shift to automated transport, which, I am certain, is one of the biggest challenges facing your union.”
Mr Albanese noted there would be positives with driverless vehicle technology such as fuel efficiency, better safety and business opportunities where automated vehicles created a platform to deliver new kinds of services.
“But even if you account for the considerable amount of media and industry hype surrounding automated transport, it’s clear that the rise of driverless vehicles will dramatically change the Australian workforce in coming decades,” he said.
“We might not like it. But change is going to happen.
“If we let the market rip, the worst case scenario is a situation where companies and their shareholders thrive because of the reduced costs, while their former employees are discarded.
“The real danger here is that rather than making life easier for everyone, automation will widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.”
While automated transport looks set to cause massive job disruption in the near future, there are signs that unions can work together with gig economy platforms to mutual benefit.
Earlier this year Airtasker and Unions NSW got into serious dialogue and agreed on a range of workplace measures such as agreeing to introduce an independent disputes resolution process overseen by the Fair Work Commission.
Airtasker workers will also be offered an insurance product that mimics workers’ compensation to give cover for workplace injuries and illness.