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Post COVID 19 - what is to come?

 

 

WORK IN THE TIME OF

CORONAVIRUS

or

What will we remember about this era and the nature of work before, during and afterwards?

 

 

There is a Facebook post doing the rounds that goes something like this:

The coronavirus is nature’s way of sending us all to our rooms to think about what we have done.

 

No-one was ready for this pandemic. No local, state or national government was ready for it. Business was blindsided. Unions were caught on the hop. Individuals were simply blown out of the water.

Suddenly everything we thought we knew about work and jobs, and management and industrial relations – all of these tried and tested systems and ideas are being confronted, challenged and many are failing. Everywhere. Not just in Australia but globally.

There will be an end to the pandemic sometime in the next two years.  A vaccine and/or a treatment will be developed. Death rates will decline to the level of other diseases e.g. influenza A and B.

People sent home to work will be asked to come back. Others will never come back.

The ideas of working from home, the gig economy, casualisation, new technologies, self-reliance as a country, outsourcing overseas, secure supply chains, and the very role of government in the market will all be under question.

What then of the notion of “working as usual”?

The idea that in 12 to 18 months we’ll look back on this period and see little difference between what was here before in 2019 and what is there in 2022. Will people see things differently? Will memory fade quickly?

Will we actually think about what we have been doing in the past few decades, in the face of fundamental changes brought on by the pandemic?

The Spanish Flu of 1919-1920

Has been described as “the forgotten pandemic”. A kind of collective amnesia appears to have settled over the world in the decades following the devastation from this disease. This in spite of the death rate of between 50 and 100 million people worldwide.

More than in the trenches during the Great War. The nature and organisation of work went back to the industrial era within ten years. Markets actually rebounded and reached new heights of investment and speculation in the mid to late 1920s.

Factories and offices expanded after the end of world War One (except in Germany). The Great Depression and the subsequent commencement of World War Two overwhelmed the lessons that might have drawn from the Spanish Flu.

What then can we expect from the COVID 19 crisis?

Undoubtedly there are various scenarios that may play out.

SCENARIO 1 – “SNAPBACK” – BUSINESS AS USUAL

  • · All temporary restrictions lifted e.g. Fair Work Act, police powers, Ministerial powers
  • · Social distancing eases, pubs and clubs open again
  • · Social media goes back to individual focus e.g. more selfish, more selfies
  • · Most people return to work, and in the same kind of jobs
  • · Unemployment stays up and then drops away over time
  • · The media gets back to the main game
  • · Investment picks up in the public and private sectors
  • · Global supply chains rev up over 2 years
  • · We are as we were in 2020 by 2023

SCENARIO 2 – “WE ARE ONE” - A KINDER AND MORE CARING NATION EMERGES

  • · People learn that neighbourhoods are important
  • · Kindness and cooperation become widespread in all aspects of society
  • · We become a more inclusive and caring society
  • · Respect for the front line workers – health, education, retail, emergency services - increases
  • · Social media becomes a force for greater human connection - in a good way
  • · Some people change the way they work and where they work – for the better
  • · Management becomes more inclusive – less adversarial
  • · Industrial relations become more productive – more cooperative

SCENARIO 2 – “MISSION CREEP” – TOWARDS AUTHORITARIANISM, INTOLERANCE AND INEQUALITY

  • · Conservative groups reach out to new demographics e.g. unemployed, religious right
  • · Governments do not relinquish temporary powers
  • · Political parties polarise around fundamental policy issues again, the culture wars intensify around climate change, religious freedoms, refugees, gender equality, race
  • · Unions and government are locked in a “death spiral” over organising the workforce
  • · State and Commonwealth Policing powers are extended in the “public interest”
  • · Internal State and Commonwealth security powers are increased e.g. surveillance
  • · Media is more controlled by regulation and by commercial interests e.g. the ABC is privatised
  • · Industrial relations powers made permanent e.g. Fair Work Act favours employers
  • · Parliament less involved in policy decisions e.g. Ministerial and Cabinet discretion increased

SCENARIO 4 – “AUSTRALIA RECONSIDERED” AS A PLANNED OUTCOME

  • · Cooperative
  • · Shared value
  • · Shared commons
  • · Decent work
  • · Self-reliance
  • · Resilience
  • · Community
  • · Independence
  • · Innovation
  • · Curiosity
  • · Inclusive

There have been moments in our History where all stakeholders in our society have stepped back, taken a deep breath and deliberately designed a different Australia. From the late 19th Century and the aftermath of the droughts, strikes and social unrest in the 1890s we produced Federation, ideas of the public interest and the central role of the State in managing disputes. After the Second World War we spent a decade creating new institutions, new roles for government, progressive moves in health, education and welfare. In the 1980s we had “Australia Reconstructed” which produced a compact between government, employers and unions that stood the test of time for 30 years.

Each moment in time was driven by a wider crisis – wars starting and finishing, economic decline, failure in markets, shifts in global politics. The current COVID-19 pandemic combined with the debatable benefits of largely unregulated economic markets, global political shifts, new technologies and environmental tipping points lead many people to the conclusion that the “social contract” between us all needs to be reconsidered. “Snapback” is not an option.

 

More to come…..