The Future of Work Is What We Make It

by Jim Stanford

In October the Senate of Australia launched an important new inquiry into the Future of Work and the Future of Workers.  The terms of reference for the inquiry include:

  1. “The future earnings, job security, employment status and working patterns of Australians;
  2. The different impact of that change on Australians, particularly on regional Australians, depending on their demographic and geographic characteristics;
  3. The wider effects of that change on inequality, the economy, government and society;
  4. The adequacy of Australia’s laws, including industrial relations laws and regulations, policies and institutions to prepare Australians for that change;
  5. International efforts to address that change.”

Given the close correspondence between this mandate, and the research focus of the Centre for Future Work, we were very glad to make a submission to this inquiry.

Our full 35-page submission is available here. It synthesizes much of our previous research on wages, job quality, the effects of automation, precarious work, the “gig” economy, and other dimensions of the future of work.  As we state in our introduction to the submission,

“Australians have expressed growing concern about their future ability, and that of their children and grandchildren, to support themselves and their families through paid work.  After all, for the vast majority of society, paid work is the dominant method to earn income to pay for the necessities of life.  A few are able to live off the proceeds of their financial wealth, business investments, or other capital assets; but most of us have to work for a living.  So the availability, stability, and earning potential of paid work is a crucial determinant of individual and collective well-being.  There is no more important factor in the economic and social success of any society, than being able to provide its members with decent, secure employment.”

One important but under-reported issue tackled by our submission is the negative impact of now-ubiquitous electronic surveillance and discipline systems in Australian workplaces. We argue that this practice has contributed to the severe stagnation of wages in Australia’s economy in recent years, by altering the trade-off in staffing strategy between offering positive inducements for performance (“carrots,” such as higher wages and greater job security), versus reliance on negative sanctions (“sticks,” including discipline and discharge).  Unconstrained electronic surveillance reduces the cost of the “stick,” hence reducing the compulsion on employers to reward good performance with rising wages.

Among the recommendations contained in our submission, therefore, we suggest that the use of electronic monitoring and surveillance should be limited through stronger privacy rights.  The power of employers to discharge workers solely on the basis of electronic ratings should also be curtailed — ensuring instead that normal progressive discipline procedures are followed in any discharge.

Full report