Unions face our uncertain future

James Riley
Editorial Director

Increasing levels of automation and woeful NBN performance are driving a deep digital divide across Australia, according to Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey.

“I read some figures recently where six people in Australia had the same combined wealth as the bottom 20 per cent – 4.2 million Australians,” said Mr Morey, adding that inequality was at a 70-year high.

The divide, he said, is particularly acute in regional and rural areas where there was significant poverty and generations of people without jobs.

Mark Morey: The challenges of the digital divide and job casualisation

“That is the opportunity for technology, that some of those people would be able to work regionally and have opportunities they couldn’t without tech advances and innovation. But we haven’t got an NBN that actually gets to anyone’s house at the moment.

“As a nation we don’t even have the infrastructure there to enable us to disseminate technology to those communities.

“The challenge to the political class is how are they going to address that divide? And if they don’t we are going to continue to see volatile elections and swings from one party to another for a long time to come.”

Mr Morey is clear about the purpose of Unions NSW; “Our function is to represent the interests and rights of working people and their families to ensure that they have decent jobs with decent pay and conditions so they can participate in society, socially and politically.

“Also more broadly protecting and strengthening the industrial framework of the country and the integrity of it to deliver for people.”

Unions NSW achieved traction in that area with a landmark agreement it brokered with AirTasker in May intended to improve pay rates and conditions in the “gig economy” business.

Mr Morey said; “We knew it was agreement not necessarily industrially or legally enforceable, but we took the approach that this was what unions had always done, that we try and set a standard in an industry then go about campaigning to actually force and ensure those standards are legislated and supported.

“Part of the thing about the new economy and the gig economy is that it gets tied in with innovation and while the platforms are innovative the claim that they are developing new jobs and new job systems are not necessarily borne out.

“If the new job is paying someone to send in a queue at an Apple store to collect a new phone or pick up McDonalds and take it to someone’s house – they are not new jobs, they are the affluent lazy part of the economy with an opportunity. While the concept is innovative I think there is a real problems if the rights and standards we like to see in this country are getting undermined by this sort of platform.”

It’s not just the pay and conditions in the gig economy that exercises Unions NSW, but the impact of new technology and globalisation on all workers.

The challenge that Mr Morey is seeking to address was revealed most clearly in analysis by MIT Sloan School of Management researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Their work shows that from the 1950s to the 1990s household income, labour productivity, employment and GDP followed similar upward trajectories.

Once the internet started to scale however, productivity increased rapidly as did overall GDP, but household income and employment started to flatline. Now there is a gulf between them which is having a huge impact on economies and societies internationally.

The deployment of artificial intelligence, automation and robotics is likely to exacerbate the situation.

Although a recent report, Future of Skills, published by Pearson and featuring analysis by Nesta and the Oxford Martin School has forecast only 20 per cent of people are currently in jobs that will be shrunk by automation by 2030 (lower than CEDA’s much higher 44 per cent forecast from 2015) there will still be a sizeable proportion of workers impacted who, without reskilling, may face long term unemployment.

For unions it’s clear to Mr Morey that; “The old Harvester judgement and Harvester man is well and truly gone. It’s no longer a man and his family and a couple of kids who are going to live frugally. Those structures have certainly disappeared.

“Technology and globalisation changed the economy from just being country based. There is a whole lot of external pressures that now come to bear on any economy and particularly labour markets.

“Where in developing countries there are competing rates of pay for often similar types of work – there is always downward pressure on wages and conditions and I think as we have seen in this country over 18 months we have had a case of increasing productivity, increasing dividends to companies- but static wage growth.”

According to Morey; “We need to work out how to distribute the benefits of productivity and gains in this country equitably,” although almost in the next breath he acknowledges that the internet and globalisation means economic systems are no longer anchored to individual nations.

The Pandora’s Box that the internet opened cannot be closed, so Unions NSW is learning to bend with the winds of change and leverage technology itself to get its message across and build membership.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics trade union membership has declined steadily – dropping to the lowest ever level in 2016. Just 13 per cent of workers – 1.6 million people – were trade union members in connection with their main job.

Unions NSW hasn’t stopped recruitment efforts though. Mr Morey said; “We are about to start a project with one of our affiliates looking at the delivered food businesses and how we are using tech now to recruit people into the union movement.

“Innovation drives innovation and that is happening with the union movement we are being forced to innovate and to reach different people in different ways.” He said the Australian Workers Union for example had some success recruiting hairdressers through a Facebook campaign asking about pay, conditions and the incidence of bullying in the workplace.

Unions NSW meanwhile was looking at online models that might encourage online “clicktivists” to participate in broader campaigns and join unions.

“Innovation on AirTasker has given the union movement a kick up the backside to stay innovating itself,” said Mr Morey.

It is, for example, working with the McKell Institute on a research paper exploring concepts such as portable leave.

“In a week they could have ten different employers. If they are doing all these jobs how do they accumulate leave? How does that carry through? If they are sick how do they have a fund to fall back on?”

ABS statistics indicate there are now 1million independent contractors in Australia – 9 per cent of all workers.

“One thing out of AirTasker is the online insurance product. They have now got capacity on site, after talking with us about workers compensation, where the person can tick a box and they have workplace insurance,” said Mr Morey.

“If someone gets injured they will link to their average pay over the last 10 weeks and if the claim is found to be correct they will pay up to 104 weeks at that rate.

“That insurance product didn’t exist anywhere before it was generated out of the new economy and our concerns for people having workplace insurance.”

He believes it is essential that; “Innovation occurs in a way that retains the integrity of the labour market. There are a series of expectations by working people that they should get paid a decent rate of pay, that they should go to work and come home safe, and have an appropriate amount of time with their families.

“Technology should be there to improve our lives- both our working and relaxation time – it should not just be there to generate endless amounts of money for a diminishing number of people.

“We need to be in a position where we are arguing for innovation to deliver new jobs because we need to have good jobs and economy that is growing.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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