Grant Robertson's Future of Work Conference opening speech

Wednesday 23rd March
2016 AUT City Campus, Auckland

Welcome to the Future of Work Commission’s Conference, Towards a Shared Prosperity. This conference represents a milestone in the work of our Commission as we move towards our final report in November of this year.   

It will be an opportunity to hear from an array of experts and practitioners in the world of work about how we can best meet the challenges and take the opportunities of the most rapid change in work and for workers in modern human history. And if you think that is an exaggeration, consider the McKinsey estimate that the current change caused by disruptive technology is ten times that of the Industrial Revolution, happening at 300 times the scale with the roughly 3,000 times the impact.

Just how fast things have changed hit home to me in a conversation about the future of work with a group of twenty somethings. I was discussing the way email had revolutionised communications in my working life. Oh how they laughed.  Email addresses were only useful to sign up for other things they told me. Snapchat, What's App, Yelp, and even "old people" things like Twitter and Facebook are the way to communicate nowadays. And that has happened in less than a decade. 

Change is a constant, but the pace and extent of change is warp speed in this digital era. 

In this context it is to state the obvious that the world has changed a great deal since The Labour Party was formed 100 years ago this year. But the values that drove those women and men are enduring. The importance of decent work, and valuing and respecting of the contribution of working people. We must take those values and put them into the context of the 21st century in order to continue to be the Party of work and the Party of workers.

That is why we have approached the enormous and rapid technological disruption and expansive globalisation of markets and people through the lens of work.

I want to particularly welcome our international keynote speakers to the conference, Prof Robert Reich and Prof Guy Standing who join us today, and Jan Owen and Goran Roos tomorrow. I am really looking forward to your perspectives and the lessons we can learn for New Zealand. And to all the other panellists who will join us representing business, unions, academia and community organisations, thank you so much for your participation. And to all of you who have taken the time out to join in this important conversation, thank you so much as well.

This broad spectrum of opinion and background is exactly what we were looking for when establishing the Future of Work Commission. When Andrew Little asked me to lead the Commission I was excited. I had always wanted to be a Commissioner since coveting the big red phone that Commissioner Gordon had in the Batman TV Series. 

In all seriousness the approach that we have taken to the Future of Work Commission is to turn inside out how we make policy. We committed from the beginning to listen first and to listen broadly and be open to new ideas. This can be a difficult process especially in the modern media clickbait world where every exhalation by a politician is taken as a definitive policy statement. 

Nevertheless we have persevered with this approach and it has been a truly enlightening and exciting process. We established an External Reference Group that included a range of business people, entrepreneurs, academics, unionists and community activists. We made sure to include people who would challenge the Labour Party. One of them has taken that literally and now decided to challenge Phil Goff for the Mayoralty of Auckland and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if another one put their name in the hat! I want to thank the reference group for their interesting and forthright advice throughout this process. 

Facing a topic such as the Future of Work can be somewhat daunting.  We decided to divide up our discussions into six workstreams, Technology- Impacts and Opportunities, Security of Income and Work, Education and Training, Māori and Pasifika Workforces and Economic Development and Sustainability. For each of those workstreams two of our MPs have led our consultation process and policy development. You will see some of them moderating panels over the next two days, but I want to thank them all for their hard work.

Over the last year we have produced discussion papers on each of those workstreams, and several background papers on issues that have arisen in our consultation. Thousands of New Zealanders have responded- both to our survey on work and to the discussion papers. We have held dozens of public meetings from Ashburton to New Plymouth to Tauranga to South Auckland. We have met with businesses large and small, heard from school groups, workers and their representatives, academics and trainers and career practitioners. 

You have been clear with us that the value of work goes beyond just the income that it provides. You want work to be meaningful, to have a purpose. You have talked about the dignity that work provides, the opportunity to share your time with other people and feel part of something more than yourself.  

We have heard about your fears. That many of you don’t feel secure in your job, and worry if you have the skills to find another job if it disappears. And those fears are based on real experience as the forces of automation, globalisation and digitalisation are changing the landscape of work. The NZIER last year applied the Osborne and Frey formula to New Zealand to estimate that 46% of jobs in the New Zealand economy will be automated in the next 15-20 years. 

But equally we have heard great stories of the growth of new ideas and entrepreneurs all over New Zealand. From the young students in Wellington starting their design business on line through Facebook to the amazing social entrepreneurs meeting the challenges of our time with a compassionate heart and a business brain. 

So, just over halfway in the Commission's timeline we meet for this conference. To mark that milestone, today I am releasing an interim report on our work so far. Summarising thousands of survey responses and submissions in a brief document is impossible, so what are releasing is a snapshot of the major themes and policy ideas that have emerged in our consultation. It is called Ten Big Ideas, and as I am sure you can imagine there are many, many more out there that we are working on. But this will give you some indication of the breadth and depth of thinking that the consultation has drawn out. Some hard copies will be available at the conclusion of proceedings and it will be online at

Woven through these specific ideas are several themes that have dominated our discussions.

We heard a deep concern that we need find ways to ensure that the future of work is sustainable. Concern about climate change has arisen at almost every consultation meeting we have had. The lesson that economic development can not come at the expense of the planet is now more understood and the new challenge is to develop policies that protect the planet and create meaningful work. Meeting that challenge is an overriding principle of the Future of Work Commission, and a feature of each of the big ideas.

The other major issue we have to confront in the future of work is inequality. The gap between the rich and the rest in our society has continued to grow. The incomes of the top ten percent in New Zealand are eight times that of the bottom. The labour income share of wealth has fallen by 10% in the less than four decades. The risk of the wave of technological change that the world is facing creating bigger inequalities is great. Those who control the new technology or how to interpret it will inevitably see their value increase, those who are displaced from work by that new technology face the prospect of further marginalisation. Unless we act.

We can and must do better than that to, as the theme of this conference says to develop a shared prosperity.

We chose that title for this conference because we do believe that it is possible through the policies we make, the expectations we set as a society to see the future of work as one in which everyone has a stake. The opposite choice, where we sit back and let the market alone dictate how things work out has the potential to shut out whole groups of society. Particularly the market skewed as it is today towards the interests of the few. But the end result of that runs the risk of crippling democracy. As the Inclusive Prosperity Commission said last year, democracy fails where citizens feel that prosperity is out of their reach.

The Ten Big Ideas range across our workstreams. With technology playing such a big role in shaping the future of work, building digital equality is essential. Ensuring all communities have access to the best technology and the skills and confidence to exploit that. We also need to make sure that we accelerate the use of technology in business, support new digital businesses and high quality research and development and innovation. 

It was interesting to note that Dominos have suggested that New Zealand might be the site of their trial of a driverless pizza delivery robot.   The Transport Minister gushed at the idea that we might be the location for this experiment.  That is all well and good, but it is our view that the last thing we should be is a passive recipient of technology.  We should have the ambition to be designing and leading the development of new technology, as we have in the past.

This technological revolution cannot be stopped, but what we must do is create a just transition, and that is one of the main themes of our Ten Big Ideas. A process where we support people through change that might see them out of work for longer periods, pushed into more casualised work. In the course of our consultation many ideas have been put forward to ensure that transition is fair and just.

A just transition means supporting those who lose their job or find their skills becoming increasingly redundant. Such enormous change as that which is coming requires a paradigm shift in thinking about how provide support and security. Access to re-training and income security will be vital element. There are many ideas and models to investigate, and in the last few days you have had much discussion of one way of doing that through a universal basic income.  We are committed to investigating a range of options, aware that the disruption to work has the potential to add to the precarious lives that many in our community lead.

Another core part of a just transition is lifelong learning. Andrew Little has already announced the first major policy that has emerged from the Future of Work Commission- our Working Futures Plan that will see three free years of post-secondary school training and education. Just as Peter Fraser and the First Labour Government understood the value of universal and free secondary education we must do the same beyond school for the 21st century.

We must also reform the transition between education, training and work. Some great work goes on in our schools to support this transition- but it is patchy. I have never quite recovered from meeting the Careers Advisor from a large boys school with 700 odd pupils who had 5 hours a week of time to devote to his job. We can do so much better by developing strong partnerships with business and industry, career professionals and training providers. We simply cannot let future generations down by not providing the support to find their pathway to a good working life. 

We want a focus of the future of work to be building wealth from the ground up. Time and again in our consultation young people have made clear they want to be working in a different way.  We need to support new models- allowing new technologies and ways of thinking to support greater control for people over their own lives, through supporting entrepreneurship, or the creation of worker cooperatives or profit sharing schemes. One of our big ideas that we put forward today is that those new ways of working are actively encouraged and supported by the government. 

While there is huge enthusiasm for new models of business, there remains an important place for large businesses who employ many people. What I would like to see emerge from us facing the challenge of the Future of Work together is the opportunity for a new social contract, where working people, businesses and the government come together to fulfil their mutually reinforcing needs.  Where flexible options are found to support people through, as the German government have called it the “rush hour” of life. Where the mutual benefit of training and life-long learning is supported. Where old models of industrial strife are replaced by high quality engagement and participation by working people  At this conference you will hear from  two companies about how they are embracing the challenges in different sectors – Hawkins Construction and Air New Zealand – and I thank them for sharing their stories with us.

A further part of building wealth from the ground up is support of our regions and of sustainable development. One of tomorrow's speakers Shamubeel Eaqub has noted that 95% of the jobs created in New Zealand since 2008 have been here in Auckland and in Christchurch representing cities with 50% of our populations. We need to support new economic development models and among our big ideas we are backing a programme of industry clusters to, as my colleague David Clark loves to say, push deep specialisation.

The workstreams on Maori and Pasifika and the Future of Work have been informed by a community desire to create new partnerships that build on successes and lift aspirations of new generations. The Post-Treaty settlement era should be the catalyst for new partnerships between Maori, central and local government and business to create decent and sustainable work. For Pasifika communities the aspirations of families to see high level educational success and high skilled jobs is matched only by a desire for the next generation to retain pride in their unique Pasifika identities. The Ten Big Ideas document calls for the creation of Pasifika Working Futures Plan to bring this to reality.

As you can see this project is big and bold because it needs to be. We are facing some of the biggest challenges to what we have considered work. In closing  I want to return to one of my starting points - the desire of New Zealanders for meaningful work. Recently a video made by a young Kapiti Coast man Jarryd Stoneman dancing with his 93 year old great-grandmother went viral. Jarryd is the full time carer for his great-grandmother and he took a video of them dancing one morning. The sheer joy and kindness it generated saw thousands of people affected by it. What he does as a family member would not usually be recognised as work, and when it is undertaken by someone outside the family what is paid to the carer does not value that work either. It certainly does not add to GDP, but it does add to our wellbeing.

Isn’t it time we valued that kind of work?

There is now an opportunity to re-assess how we value work and what we pay people. Tomorrow afternoon we will look at a range of issues in that regard including pay equity and the role of volunteers. It is also why we the opportunity provided by the challenges of reducing paid full time work can be seized to re-think work and what it means to us.

From here we want to take the ideas of the past year, what we learn over the next two days and turn those into the high level and practical policy proposals that will give New Zealanders the confidence to face the changing nature of work. We still want to hear your views and ideas, both on where we have got to and where else you think we should be.

Fundamentally the outcome I would like to see from the Future of Work process is a new social partnership between government, business, workers and the community to manage the change and disruption and focus on the place of work in driving a good quality of life, providing dignity, connection and meaning. Your presence here today, from a diverse range of backgrounds gives me hope we are on the path to that new partnership. Thank you and enjoy the conference.

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