Sky News PVO Newsday

28 September 2017




SUBJECT/S: New book Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age


PETER VAN ONSELEN: The Shadow Finance spokesperson Jim Chalmers has co-written a book called ‘Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age’. It looks at the impact of automation on the workforce. He spoke with our Sky News political reporter Tom Connell a short time ago, who began by asking Mr Chalmers, or Dr Chalmers as he’s often known, how generous payments would need to be for those who can’t find work because of automation.


JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FINANCE: We're always conscious about the Budget constraints. Particularly me, I'm the Shadow Minister for Finance. We need to make sure we can afford to target our social security to those who need it most. But you're right that people towards the ends of their careers are the ones who can often be the most anxious about what will happen to them. We do need a proper pension system. We need to make sure that people are accumulating superannuation to save for their own retirement, which is at risk when people are working in the gig economy for example. All of those considerations are really, really important. There's no one solution or one answer. We've pitched up something like 33 different policy ideas and directions in the book, because we think that we can't kid ourselves to think that we can have all of this enormous technological change in the workplace and not have it accompanied by changes in policy, changes in schools and changes in the way that we approach work.


TOM CONNELL: You mentioned superannuation and other entitlements in the gig economy. I’m interested in this idea; you're talking about people that might have a job or multiple employers that are still needing sick entitlements, superannuation and might be in a separate pool. Would you by necessity then need some sort of levy on people accessing those services to accumulate those funds?


CHALMERS: I think the first step, and something we're proposing for governments to have a look at, is you need to have entitlements that are portable. You need to have, in time, a central place where your entitlements are kept so that you can accumulate super and sick leave and insurance and all of those sorts of things, as well as the basic minimum requirements around occupational health and safety. As people have more and more jobs, even simultaneously more and more jobs, you need to make sure that those benefits are portable and secure.


CONNELL: Do you need some sort of charge on the company or even the service so that is going to a pool of money that's portable, but you've got to build it up somehow? Is that the reasoning?


CHALMERS: We're not quite ready to recommend a levy or a fee, but I do think it's important to think about who manages that central bank of entitlements? How is that done? Is it the labour movement and trade unions? Is it some sort of third party? Is it the individual worker who manages that through some sort of account? All of these big ambitious things are the sorts of things we'll need to tackle in the next 10 or 20 years as the machine age gathers pace.


CONNELL: The other thing about the gig economy you've touched on in terms of Uber for example, you're saying you might need a share in the economy so that people carrying out that work actually get the spoils. Presumably that means instead of a company or a few executives at Uber making all of the money, a whole host of people do. How does that start though? Is it the Government starting up a platform? Because if someone comes up with an idea, presumably they want to keep a bit more of the profit rather than just being one of the worker bees.


CHALMERS: We're just making the pretty simple point, Tom, that a lot of the wealth that's being created at the moment in these new technologies is created on the back of people contributing their information or their effort and not receiving a lot of that wealth that's generated in return. And we need to think about how we redesign markets for information so that people who make a contribution can get something back beyond free photo sharing and that sort of thing. We need to think about - the technical term for it is cooperative platforms - so people can get together and band together and be the beneficiaries of their own inputs and information and effort. It's nothing more complex than that.


CONNELL: You mention as well the potential role for unions in all of this and yet, right now, as this transition is underway, we've got just about record low membership of unions. Is there some failure of the union movement on that front?


CHALMERS: I think union membership levels are something very concerning to the whole labour movement and to lots of people in the whole community. I know that the union movement itself spends a lot of time working out how they can remain good recruiters, how they can keep membership up. I went to the west coast of the United States with the ACTU and the Transport Workers' Union to speak with some of these gig economy platforms about how in Australia we can maintain, for example, some of those minimum conditions that you and I talked about a moment ago. So I think unions will be as relevant as ever, but they need to change and I'm confident that they're putting the work in to that change.


CONNELL: You mentioned as well there's concern for the future not just about the job and the money but, you know, that sense of purpose you have. You allude in the book to volunteering. What else though? Is it going to be a society where you might have a million part-time artists, more and more sporting leagues or are you talking about stuff that actually gives back in some way to the economy or society?


CHALMERS: There's a couple of different parts to that, Tom. The first job of Government and the education system and the first responsibility of individual workers in the economy is to make sure that they maintain the skills and the abilities to succeed in the machine age. But for those who can't, for those who fall outside the system, we need that decent social safety net. But we also need to think differently about that thing that we call reciprocal obligation and we think about that too frequently in very narrow terms - things like Work for the Dole. And the point that we make in the book is there will be some people who will find it hard, if not impossible, to succeed in the new machine age. So we need to think about how they can contribute and be valuable in this society. For a lot of people that will be volunteering, that will be mentoring, it will be caring responsibilities. All sorts of other ways that they can make a contribution so we need to think of that reciprocal obligation in broader terms than what we currently do.


CONNELL: On the other side of the fence, some companies are thinking they might need more flexibility on hiring and firing if we get a really quick influx of change. Is that something you can see?


CHALMERS: Even for those of us - and I include myself and Mike Quigley in that - who think that technology is a tremendous force for good, that there is a big upside to technological change, we are worried about the capacity it has to make our society less equal, to make employees less powerful in the labour market, but also to hollow out the middle income jobs, to change the skills that are required to do jobs, and sometimes those skills are difficult to acquire. All kinds of reasons why technology has the capacity to make us less equal. That troubles us greatly. That's really the main motivation why we wrote Changing Jobs.


CONNELL: Just finally, this is part of a plan you've got, I think 20 recommendations over 20 years. Politics is a bit more volatile than that. Are you going to settle on some things you're going to really try to push if Labor win office for the first term? Do you have one or two major things you can do urgently on that front?


CHALMERS: We've got 33 different ideas in the book - 20 Government policies and then some things in schools and some changes in personal mindset. The beautiful thing is on my side of Parliament, Tom, whether it be Ed Husic or a whole range of colleagues, most of us are thinking in one way or another about the jobs of the future and the policy response. So we're pushing on an open door really when it comes to discussing these issues within the Parliamentary Labor Party in Canberra. Some of them are more ready to go, others are thoughts and sketched out ideas for down the track. But there's enough there I think for all of us to work on together and I'm confident that the colleagues are doing that.


CONNELL: But what one or two that are ready to go or are particularly urgent as we face this transition?


CHALMERS: I think minimum standards for people in the gig economy's a pretty easy one to conceive of. I think some of the initiatives around lifelong learning. We talk about the Singaporean initiative, which means people are learning in their current jobs in a more granular and ongoing and habitual way; that's not difficult to implement. Early intervention in school with technological education, proper needs-based funding. All of these things are ready to go and they are almost fully formed from our point of view in the Labor Party. And then there are others which are sketched out for further thought and direction later on.


CONNELL: Shadow Finance Minister Jim Chalmers, thanks for your time today.


CHALMERS: Thank you, Tom.