SPEECH The future of work

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Tena koutou katoa. Thanks for joining me today. 

Can I acknowledge Annette King, Labour's Deputy Leader, Grant Robertson, our Finance Spokesperson, and the other members of our Labour Caucus.

Can I also acknowledge Michael Barnett from the Auckland Chamber of Commerce who helped us put today’s event together. 

This morning I want to outline what will be a signature piece of work for the parliamentary Labour Party over the next two years. It will confront what I and many others regard as one of the biggest medium and long-term challenges facing New Zealand and many other countries: the future of work. 

This is important to me because I’ve spent my working life making sure the labour market operates in a way that ensures people have secure jobs, decent work, and the opportunity to get ahead. 

For myself, I had a pretty classic Kiwi upbringing. I grew up in Taranaki. My dad was a school teacher and my mum worked as a secretary for an optician. 

They taught me to work hard, respect others and, most of all, to think for myself. Given that they were both committed National Party voters, they probably did a better job of that than they would have liked. 

My Mum and Dad worked hard to provide for us and make sure we got a good start in life. Because of them I was able to do well at school and go to university where I studied law.

After graduating, I went and worked as a solicitor for the Engineers Union. There I enjoyed a highly varied employment law practice, helping to make sure that workers got good conditions and they weren’t taken advantage of. 

I’ve always been driven by the need to see justice done, or for that matter, to see injustice challenged. 

The injustice I talk about is when the powerful and the privileged take advantage of the weak. 

At a time when we are reflecting on how some employers are making unilateral deductions from staff to pay for stock losses caused by customers, I recall that one of the first cases I worked on was about exactly this issue. 

A service station manager claimed $100 was missing from the till, possibly the result of a drive off. He also claimed a meat pie had been stolen. He insisted the two staff on duty each pay $50 towards the lost petrol, and when one of them, Daniel, who I represented, refused, he was sacked for his refusal and for stealing the pie. 

Daniel, a teenager at the time, was able to challenge the unfairness meted out to him, including producing a receipt for the pie. Daniel got justice and his employer learnt a lesson in due process. 

One of my big fears is that expectations we once had of fair treatment at work are fast evaporating. 

I have been concerned for a long time that workers are left to haggle over a smaller and smaller share of our national income and the government's response is to make the rules less and less fair.

The reason I chose to work for people like Daniel then is the same reason I chose to enter politics a few years ago. 

I believe that the law and government policy should provide safety and security for people and a level playing field so they can get on with making the best of their own lives.

I don’t think New Zealanders ask much of their Government or their laws. 

All they want is to know that if they work hard and pay their taxes, they’ve got a decent chance, they can save a bit for retirement and try to give their kids a leg up. 

And if circumstances make work impossible, people still have the means to live in dignity. 

We don’t ask the world. We don’t want something for nothing or for anyone to do it all for us. 

All New Zealanders want is a fair shot. 

Whether it’s in work or their own business, New Zealanders want to know they’ve got opportunities and can get ahead. 

It’s a pretty simple social contract. You do your bit, there are good rules that make sure you are fairly rewarded and have some certainty, and there is help and support there if you need it. 

But right now, more and more people are doing the right thing, but they aren’t seeing the results. 

Because if we're honest, even some of the most simple aspirations are becoming harder and harder to fulfil. 

We all know this. 

It’s getting harder to find secure, well paid jobs. It’s gettings harder to buy a home, harder to afford to start a family or to retire. 

And this isn’t just a problem for the low paid. 

More and more people on good incomes, mid-level incomes, are finding it harder to save, harder to pay the mortgage, harder to keep their businesses afloat, harder to get ahead. 

People are feeling the squeeze. Even though they are working their guts out. 

That simple social contract is breaking down. 

The security that should come with hard work simply isn’t there for people like it should be.

And this isn’t just a question of economic performance, because what we are finding is that even when growth ticks up, too many people still feel insecure. 

We are seeing a new insecurity in disturbing new working arrangements like zero hour contracts, where someone who ostensibly has a full time role can have their hours changed massively from week to week, or can find themselves with no hours at all for the week. 

I want to be clear, I’m not blaming just the current Government for this new era of squeeze and insecurity. 

The erosion of the economic security that New Zealanders should be enjoying is bigger than any one policy or decision. 

These are issues caused by the fundamental settings of our economy, the priorities about where we are investing, and who our economy is meant to be delivering for. 

It’s about the fact that too much of our investment capital is going into speculation, instead of into supporting the next great Kiwi business that is going to create jobs and grow our wealth. 

It’s about the fact that the average house in Auckland earned more money last year than the average worker. 

It’s about the fact that incomes aren’t keeping up with the cost of living, which means a greater reliance on consumer credit and private debt. 

Here's the thing: our economy, like our laws and our government, is only useful if it’s about delivering for people. And that means delivering for everyone. 

People don’t serve economic principles or forces. Economic forces are the product of what people do. 

We’ve forgotten our economy is meant to be about people, and as a result more and more people are being left out. Their efforts aren’t being rewarded.

So let’s be clear about something else. The decline in economic security isn’t because New Zealanders aren’t working as hard as they used to. In fact, New Zealanders work some of the longest hours in the developed world. 

What’s happened is that the underlying structures of our economy have changed, and our policies haven’t changed to keep up. 

People on middle incomes, people who own a small business, people who work on contract, who are doing their best to earn a crust and get ahead, they are feeling forgotten.

Mostly because, in policy terms, they are. 

I want to be clear about something here too: The Labour Party has a challenge to update our definition of working people in a world where the nature of work itself is changing. 

Because today, being the party of working people isn’t just about being there for New Zealanders who work 9 to 5 on a salary or on a shift for an hourly wage. 

It has to be about being there for all the people who make their living from their own work, who are grafting to improve their lot. People who, to use the old phrase, work for their money instead of having their money work for them.

When I travelled around the country during the recent elections, people often told me they didn’t see themselves reflected in what we were saying. 

And that meant they didn’t feel like there was anybody in politics who was looking out for them. 

So today I have a clear message about that: to people working hard to get a small business off the ground, to people choosing to work on contract, people who are their own bosses, and are thinking about maybe being able to take on someone else: I want you to know, we get it. 

And the Labour Party will work for you. 

We have always been the party of hard, often physical work, and the party that sees work as a means for social and economic advancement. 

The party that wants to see everyone get ahead. 

To make this happen, we will be the party with a long term economic plan. A plan that’s about giving people the tools they need and restoring economic security to New Zealanders. 

We will be the party that makes sure when you work hard, you get the rewards.

That means having good rules that give people certainty and fairness. And rules that mean people can seize opportunities with confidence. 

The truth is, we need to be bold enough to face up to some of the big issues.

And one of those is the changing nature of work. 

My son Cam is 13 and it’s pretty obvious to me that the workforce he is going to be entering in a just a few years’ time is going to be totally different from the one that I went into after university. 

For Cam’s generation, there are some big challenges ahead.

New technology is rapidly transforming our world and our work. 

It’s hard to understate just how important these changes are going to be for working people. 

The ongoing digital revolution is as world changing as the industrial revolution was 200 years ago, and to adapt we are going to have to make decisions now if we are to be ready so people are not left out. 

For example, experts from all around the world are already warning that a greater reliance on technology and automation is going to mean that many of the jobs we rely on today won’t be there in the future, and neither will the wages that go with them. One study completed last year shows that 47% of all jobs in the United States are at high risk from automation.[1] 

There’s no point in extolling the virtues of a change to much less labour-intensive work without also confronting what that means for people and society in general. 

At the same time, we are seeing more and more people, especially younger people, who are embracing the new economy. 

More and more people today are their own boss, and are working to make their own ideas succeed. 

We need a Government that is going to champion those people, while fighting to make sure that no one is left out or left behind by an economy that is changing in ways we could never have predicted. 

We need a Government that is going to prepare us to seize every opportunity that is coming.

Because I see huge potential benefits for New Zealand in an economy that is driven more by ideas and innovation. That’s a space we are really strong in already.

A major theme of my work as Leader will be developing a long-term economic plan that’s about making the most of the changing nature of work, that’s about increasing productive investment, and building an education system that’s fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

To do this, Labour will establish a Future of Work Commission to work with New Zealanders over the next two years to develop policies for creating more jobs, creating better jobs, and getting New Zealand ready for the economic challenges of the next twenty years. 

The purpose of the Commission will be to look at how we adapt to the rapidly approaching changes ahead; how we make sure ours is a society and an economy that generates work and incomes for a stable and prosperous community, and how we prepare for the likelihood of multiple changes in jobs over a working life, including having periods of no paid work. 

This project will be chaired by our finance spokesperson, Grant Robertson, and will include portfolios such as social development, economic development, education, labour, skills and training, and ICT. 

The Commission will get around New Zealand. It will hold public seminars and workshops and will draw attention to issues around work in New Zealand that need to be addressed.

It will engage external advisors and experts including, where possible, from overseas. It will work closely with local universities and academics. It will be a major piece of work. 

We're doing this because although we can see a major challenge ahead of us, we don't pretend to have all the answers. 

This is a new way of working. We want to talk to New Zealanders about where the solutions lie. This is not about us telling what's good for them.

These issues are too important to just leave up to the political machinery to resolve.

So, Labour is going to spend the next three years focused on solutions, not sitting on the sidelines complaining. 

We will work with all New Zealanders, from the smoko room to the boardroom, to build a plan to grow our economy and take advantage of the opportunities ahead of us. I'm confident we'll do this best by working together.

This means Labour will fight the next election with a long-term economic plan built on the best expert advice and the real world experience of our communities and businesses. We will equip New Zealand to face the economic challenges of the next twenty years and more, including planning for work that supports and enhances the environment and mitigates climate change, and that is sustainable.

In the end, it is Labour’s historical mission to make sure the great social contract of mutual gain and mutual support, which is so important for peace and stability, is periodically modernised to meet today’s challenges. We are now facing one of those times. We are ready to face the challenge.


I think we have some incredible opportunities ahead of us as a country. 

Opportunities to grow our wealth, create new and better jobs, give our workers both more opportunities at work and better protections. 

We have the opportunity to make sure that work in the future remains the best path to economic and social security. 

We’ve got the opportunity to renew the basic social contract that is at the heart of our Kiwi way of life. 

To make sure that New Zealanders who are working hard can get ahead. To make sure that effort is rewarded. 

To make sure that each of us has a fair shot at making the most of our lives and fulfilling our aspirations. 

I look forward to working with all of you to help make this happen, together. 

Thank you.

[1] Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, University of Oxford.

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