28 November 2019

In 2019 I turned 36 years old: no longer a young man, but by no means an old one either. And, yet I can name four completely different jobs I have had in the relatively short decade-and-a-half of my working life. In contrast, my grandfather worked his whole life not just in one industry, but for one single organisation. Together, the two of us present a neat sketch reflecting the bigger picture of the changing nature of work.

In just two generations, working life in Australia has shifted dramatically. In 40 years, the rate of casuals in our workforce has doubled. In 2016 the ABS reported that nearly one million Australians were working as independent contractors. And with myriad new technology platforms like Uber, AirTasker and Deliveroo, piecemeal and underpaid gig work is enjoying something of a renaissance.

Workers under these arrangements live in a precarious world. They are paid for each unit of work produced, with little accounting for their time, skills or expertise. They miss out on the protections offered to workers employed in more mainstream structures: award wages, superannuation, leave and security of tenure. These arrangements also come with risk: sham contracting, dodgy employers who believe in profit at any expense, including the livelihood of employees and their families, a cash economy that leaves workers without access to insurance or proper OH&S conditions. At the worst end of the scale, workers contend with the shocking exploitation of modern slavery, which is a well-documented occurrence in Australia. Experts also point to evidence that shows how technology platforms entrench inequality and exacerbate discrimination.

These phenomena of casual work, independent contracting and the gig/platform economy are unlikely to disappear over the next two decades. But, rather than lament the technological advances and cultural shifts that have lent themselves to these changes, I want to advocate for a deep paradigm shift in Australian industrial relations, one that will ameliorate the risks and disadvantages inherent in these working structures and will stop unscrupulous employers who abuse employment law.

In 2019 in Australia we regulate employment, not work. By 2035, if we want to maintain high wages and good working conditions, we will need to have shifted to regulating work itself, not just workers in mainstream employment structures.

This paradigm shift might be elegant in its simplicity, but it will require thoughtful policy approaches to bring about.

Establishing an in-principle right for independent contractors and gig workers to collectively bargain would allow workers to negotiate better pay and conditions alongside their colleagues. At the same time, it would allow workers who derive a genuine advantage from contract work, such as professional consultants, to maintain that advantage.

In New York City, drivers who use technology platforms like Uber and Lyft, are benefiting from a designated minimum wage, which is reportedly adding almost USD$10,000 extra to their yearly wages. In Australia, a number of states and territories have developed regulations to allow ride-sharing platforms to operate within the law. This shows it ought not be impossible for the Commonwealth to regulate to allow for drivers to benefit from the minimum employment standards set out in the Fair Work Act.

We could carefully look to examples in Germany and Singapore, where the use of sector bargaining has created higher wages, lifted productivity in entire industries and benefited the economies of local communities.

Any regulation of work ought also include mandatory employer-contributed superannuation so that all workers, no matter the framework within which they contribute to the economy, have the security of retirement savings.

Not only would measures like these benefit workers employed in traditional structures and workers occupied in new frameworks, it would benefit our economy as a whole. Reduced wages have been shown by some economists to have a depressive effect. They are associated with lower productivity, less innovation, lower rates of growth in skills and professional development and continued reliance on obsolete technologies. Moreover, depressed wages are also associated with a reduced marginal propensity to consume.

None of us really know what lies ahead in the future, but I imagine when I am the age my grandfather was when he retired, work will look very different again. Our responsibility as leaders and as lawmakers is to ensure that the Australian principle of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, established in 1907 with the Harvester decision and now an integral part of the spirit of our nation, remains at the heart of the structures we work in.

This work first appeared in a University of Western Australia publication; ‘Let Every Stage Advance: Policy Ideas for the Fiftieth Parliament

Featured image: Studio Republic on Unsplash