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The Future of Work and Industrial Relations in Australia


SUBTEXT: the present adversarial system of workplace relations place employers, employees and governments in an impossible situation. Until and unless there is a convergence of interests and common ground found between all the stakeholders in workplaces, national productivity and long term job security remain at risk. One thing we are certain of is that the problems of the 21st century workplace cannot be resolved by using the 20th century processes that created the problems in the first place. We need to find a better way.


Finding a starting point or entry point into the question is both easy and complex at the same time. There are obvious issues around productivity, job security and incomes. There are wider issues around new technologies, employee representation and engagement, and occupational health and safety. Still further out are issues of family-work balance, diversity management, and superannuation. There are issues around conflict resolution, social capital and the environment. Not to mention job design, new forms of work organisation and workplace leadership and the quality of management. Finally, we also have the persistent adversarial industrial relations systems and culture which is ingrained in the DNA of unions, employers and governments.


There are social and economic questions in the world that are sometimes described as “wicked”. That is, they are problems to which we cannot find agreement on the answers because we cannot agree on the questions to be addressed. Improving workplace relations in Australia is a wicked problem. Everyone is an expert. Everyone has a point of view based on their own experience. Employers and union, and governments and associations all form blocs, extend their influence through politics and networks, and maintain an uneasy balance within the existing system. The only problem is that it is a zero sum game they are playing. One side wins when the other side loses.

Rather than seeking answers, the players seek victory or death (or even worse - expedient compromise). The idea of a pendulum of power swinging backwards and forwards over the decades leads to better conflict strategies and less common solutions. There is no long term outcome other than more conflict. Employers justify their position by arguing the rights of capital, unions argue the rights of labour, government argue the need for social harmony while actually sponsoring one side or the other. Employees who want a simple life are left looking for jobs, income and a place to live. Maybe we should start there?


The international Gallup research organisation recently conducted a global survey on expectations of people around the globe for themselves and their children and the outcome was clear; the billions of people on the planet in both developed and developing countries want one thing above all others - a decent job.

What do people mean by a decent job?

They mean a formal job with regular hours and regular income. They do not mean informal work with insecure employment, uncertain hours and no predictable income. A decent job is a social as well as an economic concept. It implies self-worth and a valued status in the society and the family. It's not just about earning a wage.

It follows then that the role of national leaders, employers and everyone in the society has an obligation to create decent jobs and to fill those jobs with everyone who wants to work. Creation of decent jobs becomes the touchstone of the economy. Public and private investment in the economy must focus on large scale job creation - decent jobs for everyone. This is the path to higher GDP, improved services and ultimately a more sustainable community.


The vexed issue of income determination must form the centre piece of any revised workplace relations system in Australia. In this issue there are three components: the capacity of the economy to sustain a general level of income distribution, the capacity of an employer to pay wages, and the value of the work from the employee. These issues form the essence of the relationship between government, employers and employees. This relationship is at the heart of work in the 21st century just as it was in the previous century. The question is how to manage the system to the benefit of all?

Adversarial industrial relations ensures a zero sum game. As employers win, so employees lose. As employees lose so their relationship with the employers declines. Collective action through union and more direct means such as sabotage, high job turnover and low productivity increases. As employees win, so employers turn to government to create laws and rules to contain the employees and protect their business interests. When governments sympathetic to employees are elected, they introduce laws to favour the employees.

Income determination in the 21st century must move away from this game. We need to identify and agree on a sustainable basis for income determination that jointly optimises the interests of employees, employers and the community in general.

The original arbitration system in Australia at the turn of the 20th century offered a basic wage as the foundation for income distribution. In the 21st century a return to an agreed decent national wage as opposed to enterprise bargaining is needed. This should take into account the capacity of the economy and the need for a reasonable standard of living for all who work in order to to support general wage increases; and should not rely on some legal representation process of appearances by unions and employers in front of a government tribunal, or piecemeal bargaining at the local level.

The notion of a decent wage should be separated from the industrial relations system. We can then move to related aspects of this core principle: a decent job not only has security, income and reasonable hours; it also should been seen to be worthwhile and productive. Some countries are already moving in this direction e.g. Finland just announced a minimum monthly living income for all citizens.


Decent jobs are not a one-off idea. They fit within a whole picture of what we want in Australia over the next 100 years. Political cycles, corporate strategic planning time frames and generational limits are not the best way of looking at what we need to do to create and keep decent jobs. We need to ask ourselves what we need to do to secure jobs for our great grandchildren, not just our children.

This takes us into questions about structural change in the Australian economy, social trends, environmental goals, and national security.  We need to talk about economic growth, value creation, public and private investment, global and regional trade and diplomatic relationships, national security, sustainability, emerging technologies and infrastructure. We are obliged to take positions on these matters because they directly impact on our medium and long term ability have decent jobs. By placing decent jobs at the centre of things we can start to re-frame some of the elements of the wicked problem that we call industrial relations in Australia. It also assists in redefining the goals of governments, employers and unions.