Senate on the future of work

James Riley
Editorial Director

The federal government should establish a central body to oversee long-term planning for the future of work, a senate committee has recommended.

The select committee on the Future of Work and Workers tabled its report on last Wednesday night, and also recommended sweeping reforms to the regulation of the gig economy, redefining these workers as employees and stamping out exploitative practices.

The committee is Labor-led, and provides an insight into the Opposition’s approach to the future of work and workplace issues ahead of the looming federal election.

Future of Work: Australia needs a central planning authority to track changes

The report was dismissed by dissenting government senators, who branded it as a “missed opportunity” that is too focused on industrial relations and labour hire practices.

The inquiry was launched in October last year, and received more than 160 submissions on the issues, with the final report tabled on Wednesday night.

“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,” committee chair Murray Watt told parliament.

“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.”

A primary recommendation from the committee was that the federal government should prepare and commit to a “long-term plan to prepare Australian workers, business and the economy for coming technological change”.

“We need a shared vision and a shared effort to protect the future of work and workers for all of us. Countries that do manage change in the future are the countries that will do better,” Senator Murray Watt said.

“I have to say there are a number of other countries around the world that are doing a much better job than Australia of grappling with what change is coming our way in the workplace.”

“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.”

A “future work commission” should be established within government to coordinate the planning of this, and to have overall responsibility for “coordinating analysis, forecasting and policy development”.

“It was very clear from one of the hearings that we held in Canberra 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,” Senator Watt said.

“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.

The report also focuses on the gig economy, and what further regulation is required to protect workers engaged in it.

The committee recommended that the definition of employee be broadened to include those working in the gig economy, ensuring that they receive the various benefits and entitlements that come with this.

It also called for legislated requirements for workplace health and safety and improved superannuation rights for these workers.

The report said that gig economy companies such as Uber take “advantage of legislative shortcomings to avoid responsibilities traditionally associated with being an employer”.

The committee does not believe that technological change should necessarily be reversed, but is instead of the view that policymakers must keep apace with and embrace the positive aspects of change, “whilst mitigating potential harm to workers.”

“The committee rejects assertions that workers who perform tasks in the gig economy are independent contractors in the true spirit of the term, and is persuaded by evidence pointing instead to their dependence on the relevant digital platform.

“If a company makes money directly as a result of workers’ labour, and if workers are dependent o the company for work and income, then those workers are employees of that company.”

It called for a “swift regulatory response which will broaden the definition of employee to capture gig economy workers and to ensure that they have full access to protection under Australia’s industrial relations system.”

This was rejected by the government’s dissenting report, which said further regulation could get in the way of innovation and growth.

“Liberal National senators recognise that the potential growth of the gig economy in Australia presents opportunities for flexibility and innovation, which can enhance the economy, but which also present challenges to the status quo which must be addressed. We are of the view that regulation should not come at the cost of innovation and worker flexibility and access to opportunities,” government senators Ian McDonald and Amanda Stoker said in the dissenting report.

“Labor’s hostility to gig opportunities seems to be at the direction of the increasingly irrelevant union movement, who appears incapable of embracing a non-unionised, flexible workforce,” the said.

“Liberal National senators support a more thoughtful and nuanced debate on the appropriate safeguards required to support and foster a vibrant innovative economy.”

The senate committee report also recommended that there be stronger legislative requirements for employers to consult with workers and unions before and during the introduction of major technological changes, that Australia position itself as a leader in development and ethics of artificial intelligence, and further research be conducted into the direction and further development of digital platform work.

The government has labelled the report a “missed opportunity” that ignores evidence of the benefits of things like automation.

“What is clear is that the chair’s draft report has neglected to mention a substantial amount of evidence that was provided to the committee that focused on the opportunities inherent in changes to work practices that include automation and disruption,” the dissenting report said.

“Liberal National senators recognise the importance of engaging in a constructive and thoughtful consideration of the future of work and the role for government in ensuring that Australia is well placed to take advantage of the once in a generation opportunities that our transitioning economy offers.”

The government senators said the report is too focused on industrial relations and labour hire practices rather than the “more positive and aspirational narrative”.

“This would seem to miss the point and seems to be a political exercise by the union movement,” they said.

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