The Australian workplace has changed drastically over the last 10 years, not to the benefit of working people, with more power being concentrated in the hands of corporations who have exploited new forms of working arrangements, corporate structures and capital mobility to reduce wages and shift economic risk onto working people.

The future of work in Australia will depend on the policy responses of government to the situation that now presents itself.  If the current trend continues then the balance between employer and employee will continue to skew towards employers with workers shouldering more of the economic risk for lower and lower wages while employers reap larger and larger returns.

Alternatively, a decision to actively redress the power imbalance with a view to ensuring good secure work and wage rises that reflect a fair distribution of value will allow Australia to look at the potential future with a sense of hope about what technology can help us achieve.  

There is no doubt that rapid technological and demographic changes will pose new and more complex challenges in the future. The future of work is largely within our control. This is despite the fact that the workplace will be impacted by a range of global factors.

Globalisation has exerted far reaching effects on the workplace in the last 30 years and significantly altered the balance of power between capital and labour. The future of international trading arrangements, global supply chains and financial market integration is less certain today than it was just a few years ago. Widespread political backlash against widening income inequality means that further rapid integration of global product and financial markets may not occur as easily as in recent years.

Technological change, demographic shifts and globalisation can all have good or bad effects on the labour markets and society depending on the public policies we put in place to manage these changes. Unfortunately, the Turnbull government did not implement the right policies to manage globalisation and ensure it is positive influence for all our population. The economic benefits are monopolised by a few while the vast majority are denied a fair share in the increased productivity and wealth. This is reflected in stagnant real wages, widening income inequality and excessive levels of non-standard work. 

It has been a mistake to simultaneously weaken our trade unions and the protections we provided to workers at the very time when globalisation was enhancing the power of multinational companies, big finance and capital more generally. The smart move would have been to reinforce multi- employment collective bargaining, support trade union organising efforts and maintain the Awards system that had served our national well for many decades. Instead we did the opposite and workers were hit by a “double whammy”: having to compete intensely with low wage countries like China and the rest of Asia while our labour laws and institutions were weakened in the name of “flexibility”.

We need to correct these failures of the past and avoid compounding our errors. Regardless of whether technological change displaces a large number of jobs, or simply changes the jobs we do, the point is that without being properly managed, either outcome will result in the benefits disproportionately flowing to a few (particularly where new jobs are increasingly non-standard). The benefits from technological change need to be fairly distributed and particularly where taxpayer funds are being invested in technological innovation which is making large profits for companies.

Calls for even greater labour market flexibility, lower wages, reduced benefits and greater reliance on non-standard forms of work must be rejected. Instead the ACTU recommends the policy reforms outlined in this paper.

If these recommendations are followed we have nothing to fear about the future of work. The complex challenges that we confront can be managed. All sections of society should share in the cost of making the transition as smooth as possible and in the rewards that can result from higher productivity and wealth generation. If we all share in both the costs and the rewards on a fair basis our society will grow stronger and our political institutions will regain the public respect they once commanded. Alternatively, if we exacerbate current levels of income inequality and increase the reliance on non-standard forms of work we risk jeopardizing social harmony and political stability.