The 4th Annual Ron McCallum Debate: How do workplace relations shape our society?

Listen to the debate 

The 2014 Ron McCallum debate challenged the debaters and audience to think about what kind of society we want and how does the regulation of work impact how we live.

The panellists at this years debate –  Professor Barbara Pocock; Stephen Smith from Ai Group; Louise Tarrant, former National Secretary of United Voice; and Colleen Chen from Interns Australia, along with Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum and moderated by Geoff Giudice, former AIRC and FWA President – engaged in a discussion considering:

  • the relationship between social and economic outcomes when assessing workplace law and policy,
  • working hours, and how best to approach both long and diverse working hours,
  • the impacts of globalisation and the offshoring of jobs,
  • the notion of jobless economic growth; and
  • the adequacy or otherwise of a Productivity Commission Inquiry into workplace laws.

The discussion brought to the forefront that the limited political debate we have in Australia on workplace relations is not grappling with the significant changes that are occurring within the labour market and in our society. We need to have a much broader community-based discussion about how we regulate work and what our workplace laws, policies and cultures mean for people, their lives and how we come together as a society.

Key points made in the course of the discussion:

  • Labour law is limping along behind massive social change, our labour laws need renovation but culture trumps regulation (Pocock)
  • A strong economy is necessary for a strong society and Australia already has a generous and comprehensive safety net of minimum wages and conditions (Smith)
  • Three principles should underpin our approach to regulating work: recognition that the self-interest of workers and employers is different; workers do not have the same bargaining power as their employers, particularly corporate employers; and workers are not a commodity but human beings (Tarrant)
  • Entry-level work is becoming extinct, increasingly overtaken by vague and
    unpaid forms of precarious labour loosely branded as an “internship” (Chen)
  • Australia’s  integration with the world’s economy has brought challenges and pressures that are not going away. Growing inequality is a challenge and democracies around the world, including in Australia, are in trouble and there is no clear regulation coming from politicians, therefore we need to turn to the courts (McCallum).

On the challenges of globalisation the panel commented on the need for employers to have greater flexibility to respond (Smith); the inevitability of globalisation and the existence of forces beyond our control (Giudice); the need to be smarter as a community (McCallum); the disruptive nature of technology and the need to invest in infrastructure like the NBN (Chen); and that the government is creating an environment of fear, a fear of the other, rather than investing in the infrastructure and education we need to respond to these challenges (Tarrant).

On working hours the panel considered the diversity of hours that workers work, including long hours but also underemployment and unsocial hours. There was little support for lower standard working hours, rather attention needs to be paid to the diversity of hours.

Apart from Stephen Smith, the panel believed that the Productivity Commission is incapable of grappling with the bigger questions facing the regulation of work in Australia. The comment was made that the Productivity Commission will take a narrow economic focus that will not deal with the bigger social issues discussed during the course of the evening.

The AIER started an important conversation with this year’s Debate. We intend to continue the discussion and work with others to ensure that the public debate on workplace relations is not confined to narrow economic parameters but that the profound impact work has on all our lives is brought to the centre of how we think about regulating work.

Please note the the audio file is a large file to download (100MB).