Grant Robertson Speech to Future of Work Conference

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.  I want to particularly thank Tim and Gael, and the team at the Future of Work Programme for this, and for organising such an interesting programme.

Looking at the programme it is clear to me that I have much more to learn than to offer in terms of a discussion on the future of work.  It is heartening to see that there is so much work under way in New Zealand on the challenges and opportunities of the rapidly changing nature of work.  I look forward to the presentations.

But being a politician the opportunity to speak is like offering an addict their next fix, so I am pleased to be able talk to you today about the Labour Party’s Future of Work Commission.

Two hugely contrasting experiences towards the end of last year sum up for me the critical dynamics at play in the future of work.  In November received a visit from the joint winners of a prize I give to a local secondary school.  They had won the prize in 2013 and arrived at the end of 2014 to thank me and tell me how their year at university had gone.

It had gone well each in their respective disciplines of marketing and design. I asked them about their plans for the summer and holiday work. Thinking back to my glory days as an assistant in the fruit and veggie section of the local New World I expected to hear tales of bar work and retail.  Instead I was presented with two business cards, and a link to their design business that they had established during the year.  The summer was shaping up well with a client found through their on-line presence, and a sideline in stunning digital depictions of Wellington icons for sale at various market stalls.  

These two very capable young women did not see any boundaries between their study, commencing work, pursuing their interests or passions. They had the attitude, the skills and the security to do just exactly what they found interesting.  The future of work is bright, flexible, diverse and stimulating for them- and they will be a complete handful for anyone here trying to teach them.

Meanwhile, within my own family, we are grappling with how to help a young man, in his early 20s in and out of work since leaving school at 16 without qualifications. He currently has work, but it bores him, pays appallingly and has irregular hours.  He has more time on his hands than he needs, but few resources at his disposal to do anything.  He doesn’t know it, but he’s depressed.  He also doesn’t know it, but his job, essentially doing deliveries is one of the most at risk you can think of.  If it were to disappear tomorrow, he would have few portable skills to fall back on. 

There is no doubt that the future of work is full of opportunity.  New technology is set to drive a wave of productivity and innovation that will generate significant wealth for those who seize the opportunities.  It is set to create more opportunities to be your own boss, to turn an idea into a business, and to remove barriers to success. 

On the other hand it is also set to grow inequality and leave many behind, with work and income less secure and success more reliant than ever on having skills and expertise that you can apply widely.  Without strong intervention it could see flexibility acting as a cover for exploitation, and groups that are currently over represented in low paid, disappearing jobs left more vulnerable than ever.

I believe our job is to ensure that we provide for all New Zealanders to enjoy the flexibility and opportunity that lies ahead, and  ensure that it does not increase inequality, but is rather underpinned by the equity and economic security that is necessary to drive innovation and success.

In order to do this, we need to be clear about why work matters.  It might seem obvious, but inherent in the answer are the core values that not only drive the Commission we are establishing, but the Labour Party itself.

The core of the Labour Party’s establishment is as the party of work, and the party of workers.  It’s in the name, and it’s in our political soul.  Our party was formed to ensure the contribution of those who worked was fairly valued- a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. That remains central to our purpose today- to support the creation of wealth and work and to ensure that everyone has the chance to receive the fair reward for that which they deserve.

Work provides a sense of purpose, whether it is paid or unpaid. It is of course the engine of productivity.  Of creating, making and delivering the things we need and want.  It is also about security in its broadest sense of the word.  The security to live, to plan, to dream. It is also what binds our communities together.  If you are a New Zealanders you have two options to start a conversation- How about this weather?  And what do you do?     While we can argue that some people live to work, and others work to live, the value of work remains uncontested as one of the defining aspects of our lives.

It is a self-evident truth that the nature of work and workers has changed since our Party’s establishment nearly 100 years ago.  There have been many significant changes occurring consistently over time- mechanisation, minimum standards and wages, the increased presence of women in work, globalisation and more.   

Governments have always played an important role- sometimes in driving these changes, more often than not in managing or failing to manage it. Smart governments do not stand in the way of change, but they do ensure that change creates opportunities and that the vulnerable are protected and supported through the transitions. 

It will not come as any news to people here today, that while change is a constant in the nature of work, there is no doubt the pace of change is definitely picking up.  Driven in large part by technology, but also by changing demographic and social conditions, the future of work is as exciting, threatening and significant as it ever has been.  

When an Oxford University study tell us that 47% of jobs in the US economy are at high risk from technology, we have to sit up and take notice. 

When we know that today’s school leaver will likely have ten careers in their life we know there is no time to lose in ensuring our education and training systems are geared to meet these needs.

When we see that wages have failed to keep up with growth in our economy and increasing productivity by at least 16% over the last 25 years we know that we need to test the models of distribution of wealth to stop the ever widening gaps in our society.

On his election as Leader of the Labour Party Andrew Little asked me to lead the establishment of the Future of Work Commission.   The subject and the structure are both an indication of how Labour under Andrew’s leadership wants to work. 

We must look ahead, beyond the day to day political scandals and melodramas to the kind of country we want to be.  For Labour that means one where there is equality of opportunity, a fair go and the chance to build a better life for you and your family.  Work, and the wealth it generates is central to that.   

The outcome we have set for the Commission is for New Zealanders to confidently face the changing nature of work and to have sustainable, fulfilling and well paid employment in the coming decades.

The policy objectives of the Future of Work Commission are to achieve

-          Decent Work

-          Lower Unemployment

-          Higher Wages

-          Greater Economic Security

-          High Skilled, Resilient Workers

The Commission’s mandate is to undertake a two year programme to develop a comprehensive understanding of the changing nature and experience of work and its impact on the economy, and to develop the policy responses required to meet the challenges and grasp the opportunities presented by these changes.

We believe that in order to be responsible leaders we must look to the future and prepare now. We owe to the next generation of New Zealanders that we are giving them the best possible chance to succeed.  We owe to a current generation of workers who feel insecure about their future and income that they can make transitions to new and fulfilling types of work.  We owe to businesses, small, medium and large that we have a plan for sustainable diversified, economic growth.

There is no room for complacency in such a period of rapid change, and by 2017 we must be in a position to tell New Zealanders what we are doing to face the future of work with confidence.  The Commission will be open to new and different ideas, to challenge our assumptions and policies. We will be prepared to change.  Our commitment is that with our core values firmly in mind, we are open to each and every idea that is put forward.

Equally, the structure of the Commission is a model of how we want the next Labour government to work.   We know that not all the answers to New Zealand’s approach are held by government or politicians.  That if we are to embrace the enormous opportunities that are coming and ensure all New Zealanders benefit from this, we must involve the widest possible range of people in the development of our response.

The Commission has essentially three components

-          Labour MPs and members.  All Labour MPs will be involved in the Commission, particularly in ensuring that all interested parties in their communities have their voices heard and remain involved throughout the two years.    A group of Labour MPs will take the lead on the different work streams I will outline shortly, and our Party’s Policy Council will be closely involved as we move towards substantive policy outcomes.

-          An External Reference Group will be established to guide the work of the Commission.  It will meet regularly over the two years to ensure that the work of the Commission is focused and relevant.  The ERG will have a diverse range of backgrounds, skills and experience and include people from the business, union, academic and community sectors. We are determined that it will include people who are not Labour supporters!   We will make an announcement of the membership in the next few weeks.

-          Academic and Sector Collaborators.   Within each stream of work we will be looking to involve those who are undertaking relevant research, both here in New Zealand and overseas.  We will also actively seek out those at the coal face who are critical to the success of our economy and work in the future and involve them in development of our work.  Part of this is a major conference on the future of work that we will look to hold later this year.

Beyond these core groups we want to ensure that anyone who wants to have input can do so.  There will be many opportunities to be involved as the work develops and policy options are explored.  The first step for this is to undertake an on-line survey to understand more about how New Zealanders see their work experience, how it has changed, what they value about their work, what they don’t like and what future they see.   The survey will be live on the Labour Party website later today.

As many of you will be all too well aware, a topic like the Future of Work has many aspects, all of which overlap and intersect.  Any study of the topic has the ability to become everything and nothing at the same time and bigger than Ben Hur.  So, we have to cut the cake somehow.

For our purposes we have divided the Commission into five work streams.  For each stream an issues paper is being developed that will form the basis of work and consultation throughout 2015.  In 2016 each stream will then develop policy options and recommendations.

 1.    Technology – Impact and Opportunity

(Lead MPs- Clare Curran (ICT) and David Cunliffe (Science and Innovation)

Technology is both the vehicle through which work is changing, as well as the location of digital business which will provide some of the most high value jobs. 

Stable, permanent full time jobs are increasingly being replaced by an anywhere, anytime work model, facilitated by digital technology.  The on-demand economy driven by smartphone technology, the role of big data and the changing nature of business are the critical dynamics to understand.

The growth of Uber style businesses presents massive opportunities for entrepreneurs, but huge challenges to established players in the industries and to policy and law makers as to how manage the development.

Major themes to be explored in this stream are how is New Zealand business embracing technology trends and how will they will impact on us, how are digital business models developing in New Zealand, what are the infrastructure and skill needs, how do we ensure everyone has access to technology, and how we do we modernise our funding/regulatory/legislative environment to be conducive to new digital businesses.

  2.    Security of Work and Income

(Lead MPs- Iain Lees-Galloway (Labour) and Carmel Sepuloni (Social Development)

In the face of massive change in the nature of work, the importance of security of work and income is more important than ever.  For those in work in New Zealand wage growth has been slow or non-existent for too long.  The benefits of a growing economy and more productive are not turning into high wages. There is a need to balance flexibility and stability in the workplace, but exploitation (such as through zero hours contracts) in the name of flexibility is unacceptable. The growing “precariat” are experiencing insecurity and vulnerability on a massive scale.  For those who may be spending longer periods out of the formal workforce their income is set to be fragile and inadequate than ever. 

Major themes to be explored in this stream are, how to recognise the value of informal and voluntary work, how to provide for fair and growing wages, how to increase the value of “low skilled” occupations, how to provide security and reliability of income, the ageing workforce and population, reducing insecurity for young workers and engaging workers to improve work practice.

3.    Education and Training

(Lead MPs- Chris Hipkins (Education) and Jenny Salesa (Employment, Skills and Training)

The workforce of the future will need broad, core attributes such as flexibility, analytical skills and problem solving more than, but also in addition to, technical knowledge.  Every aspect of the education system needs to embrace the philosophy of the New Zealand Curriculum to prepare people for jobs that have not been invented yet.   There will also be a constant need for re-training and skill development within the current workforce, and at many different stages of life.

Major themes to be explored in this stream are whether our formal education structures and institutions are able to meet the needs of those entering the future workforce, how can we improve the responsiveness of education and training to rapidly changing needs, how can businesses be supported to ensure on-going training, how do we fund and support learning for life.

4.    Māori and Pasifika and the Future of Work

(Lead MPs- Nanaia Mahuta (Māori Development) and Sua William Sio (Pacific Island Affairs)

Māori and Pasifika workers are over-represented among those who are currently unemployed and in low wage and insecure work. They are also at higher risk from the loss of jobs to technology.  The transition to the future of work is more challenging for these population groups than any other in New Zealand.  At the same time, there is huge opportunity in establishing businesses that cater to a growing Pasifika population and through the post Treaty settlement economic base that many Iwi now have. 

Major themes to be explored in this theme are improving educational participation and success, improved financial literacy, digital access, youth employment initiatives, new models of business development and partnership with church and community groups.

5.    Economic Development and Sustainability

(Lead MPs- Jacinda Ardern (Small Business) and David Clark (Economic Development)

Wealth generation is essential to ensuring a productive and fair society. Traditional models of economic development and business are being challenged by changes in technology, environment and society.  Sustainable economic development must take into account the kind of society we want to live in, how wealth is shared and how we ensure the environment is protected and enhanced.  The way markets are structured is changing also.  The corporation’s place as the mechanism for overcoming transaction costs is being challenged by individuals, freelancers, contractors, cooperatives and collectives.  Talented people need organisations less than organisations need talented people.  In a nation dominated by small and medium enterprises, New Zealand business faces particular challenges in this context.

Major themes to be explored in this steam include how to stimulate sustainable growth that take account of these changes, and the forces of  technological change, globalisation, climate change and migration, how to make it simpler to do business and to scale business up, how to promote diversification, regional development and improve opportunities for small and medium sized enterprises, how to support businesses in a changing environment.

As I said earlier there is clearly huge overlap, and whole issues that would merit a stream of work on their own.  What we are endeavouring to do is ensure that we are focused on the areas that will enable New Zealanders to confidently face the future of work.

We believe that this is one of the most important pieces of work that needs to be done at a political level in New Zealand today.  Our Leader, Andrew Little has set for New Zealand the goal of having the lowest unemployment rate in the OECD.   That is exactly as it should be.   To achieve it we must apply ourselves to do as Sir Paul Callaghan urged us, to be a place where talent wants to live.

That means upholding our egalitarian spirit that has served us so well, to be independent and proud on the world stage, to enhance and support our environment and economy together- and to put innovative, sustainable, good and decent work at the heart of all we do.

The Future of Work Commission is the Labour Party’s step to show some political leadership in shaping a fair and prosperous country.  We look forward to working with you all on these important issues.