Labour's Future of Work


The Labour Party’s Future of Work Commission is positive about what’s to come, but what does it mean for PSA members?

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“The best way to predict the future is to invent it”, says a banner quote in the Labour Party’s long-awaited Future of Work report. Behind the buzzwords, though, this report has some serious points to make about how technology, globalisation and collaboration are changing our workplaces at a pace we’ve never seen before. The Commission’s big message – we can’t let these changes just happen to us, passively. We must adopt and adapt.

How then to deliver decent work and try to combat rising inequality? Labour’s come up with a bunch of recommendations, most of them around education and security of work and income. Some, like the three-years free post-school education, have already been implemented; others, like “making New Zealand a magnet for talent”, would require a multitude of policy settings.

Labour proposes a guarantee that every worker who loses their job through technological change would get up to six weeks’ training and support – and businesses that refuse to train their staff should pay a levy. There are suggestions about abolishing secondary tax, partnerships with iwi and Pasefika, and a promise to investigate future income models like the Universal Basic Income.

How many of these recommendations end up in the party’s manifesto – this year or in the future – is really anyone’s guess. But the korero around employment relations and the role of unions isn’t just about government policy. 

CTU President Richard Wagstaff believes that union values – democracy, freedom, equality, justice, collaboration – will never go out of fashion. But as the environment changes, so must unions change. Labour’s made it clear unions need to take the lead on this. With one of the lowest rates of collective employment agreement coverage in the OECD, change is needed now.

Working Life interviewed Grant Robertson about the Future of Work Commission for the March 2016 issue. In it, he pointed at the need for unions to change their traditional models of organisation and offer different services to members.

“People in the ‘sharing economy’ may not need help negotiating contracts, but they realise they need support and organisation,” Robertson says. 

Large, stable workforces will feature less in the future, so reaching out to the new working environment will be key.

Last year, British researcher David Coats spoke to PSA audiences about the need to decouple industrial relations from left-wing politics. Professor Margaret Wilson of Waikato University, argues for a “workplace constitution” – a statement of rights and responsibilities in the workplace for all workers, not just employees.

But it’s clear that for any of this to happen, the union movement will need to push Labour – or whoever’s in government at the end of this year. Because while politicians think about what to do next, workers will be bearing the brunt of this rapidly changing environment, and someone needs to stand up for them.