The future of work is under threat, but it’s not robots we need to fear


By Carl Rhodes

Posted

March 22, 2018 06:00:00

When Aussie billionaire tech tycoon Mike Cannon-Brookes appeared before the Senate select committee on the future of work last week, he warned that if Australia didn’t face up to the challenge of new technology our nation would be left behind.

If Mr Cannon-Brookes — co-founder of software company Atlassian — is to be believed, within the next 10 years 40 per cent of Australian jobs will be lost to automation. If we don’t get our act together “pain and social unrest” will ensue.

The answer, he proffers, is to focus on retraining, redeploying and new job creation.

Mr Cannon-Brookes’ proclamations repeat refrains that have been circulating for some time. For politicians in particular, even in times of low national unemployment, focussing on “jobs, jobs, jobs” appeases public anxiety about the destitution and loss of identity that might come with joblessness and economic decline.

Just as the Senate committee was being schooled by Mr Cannon-Brookes, a political debate was raging about Australia’s minimum wage.

While attacks on Australia’s lowest paid workers played out last year over penalty rates, now the National Retail Association has told the Fair Work Commission that it should freeze the minimum wage, not even adjusting it for inflation.

This all comes at a time where businesses and their political allies are clawing and fighting to get corporate tax rates cut under the aegis of a long-defunct belief in trickle-down economics.

Meanwhile so many corporations, including Mr Cannon-Brookes’ Atlassian, aren’t paying any corporate tax in Australia anyway.

Inequality is getting worse

Trickle down? Our present era is one that is characterised by widening inequality where globally the richest 1 per cent own half of the world’s wealth — up from 42 per cent 10 years ago. Forty years ago the share of Australian GDP that went to workers pay was 54 per cent — today it is 47 per cent.

At the same time Aussie unemployment is down at 5.5 per cent, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proudly bragging that more Australian’s are in work today than ever before. A recent survey by the National Australia Bank revealed that Australian business conditions were better than ever.

Business and jobs seem to be weathering the new economy extremely well. It is equality that is really being disrupted, and the way we are going it will get worse and worse.

Business is thriving in the gig economy, as commercial contracts strip workers of rights hard earned by the 20th century labour movement. These were the rights demanded in response to the forms of exploitation and degradation that had been created by the factory system that emerged from the technological advances of the first industrial revolution.

Meanwhile, gig economy companies are laying the claim that their employment model is a boon for its workers. “Flexible work that can be tailored around your life,” Uber calls it. Foodora says that its riders enjoy “the freedom to work when and where they want”.

Surely it sounds a bit Orwellian doublespeak to spruik loss of worker protections in the language of liberty, choice and self-determination?

No mention here of how the future of work might well be one where political and economic freedom is massively eroded for all but the vast majority, in a vicious expansion of inequality and poverty, masked by an obsession with how best to use gadgets to get things done and a myopic fascination with new technology jobs.

March against shared prosperity

The real danger of the future of work is no so much about robots taking our jobs, but about the continued trajectory of a business-led march against shared prosperity. This is a revolution led by corporate bosses, not robots. Blaming a faceless “technology” is simply a matter of avoiding responsibility for actions taken by humans.

If the present is anything to go by the future will be characterised by further widening inequality, the erosion of working rights, falling employment security and the removal of social safety nets in a system that promotes winner-take-all values.

These problems have not been created by technological disruption; they have been created by a stubborn insistence that the liberation of business activity within a free market system will yield benefits for all.

After more than 40 years of the neoliberal experiment this has proven tragically wrong, even though our present government keeps banging that same worn out political drum.

So, while the economy is being disrupted by technology, hackneyed neoliberal political dogma remains entirely immune to disruption. If the future of work is not going to be one of entrenched inequality, than this is the progressive disruption we need.

Carl Rhodes is the head of management at the University of Technology, Sydney’s Business School.

Topics:

economic-trends,

government-and-politics,

welfare,

business-economics-and-finance,

small-business,

poverty,

australia



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