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Wednesday, 6 May 1987
Page: 2426


Senator VIGOR(5.52) —As a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment I fully recommend this report to the Senate. An enormous amount of work has been done by the Committee secretariat, which has been untiring in serving the interests of the Committee. I commend the Chairman for the work that he has done in bringing this whole inquiry together. I believe the report is highly significant to the future of work in Australia.

We live in a time of technological and social change which has been brought upon us by changes in technologies, some of which have been imported and some of which have developed here. On the one hand, these technologies are improving productivity in the rural, manufacturing and service sectors of the economy. On the other hand, it is having an effect on unemployment. However, the relationship between unemployment and the advent of technology is fairly tenuous. Unemployment is soaring and the only avenues remaining open for the dislocated workers are in the public and private domestic and social services areas rather than in the more traditional manufacturing and rural production areas. We seem to have moved into an information era in which many people are employed in managing and handling information. Understandably, employees are wary of proposals to introduce new technology and often do not have the expertise in those new technologies to be able to assess their impact.

A lot of unions are afraid of facing and analysing new technologies and the effects on their unions because we have developed a union structure which instead of being industry based is trade based. So a number of trades are actually being replaced or pushed out by new technology. New technology is inducing a Luddite attitude into the relevant trade unions. This has been particularly noticeable with the printing unions which have decided that they do not want to be completely replaced. However, a lot of the aspects of the printing industry were very unpleasant to deal with. The casting of lead print face was very difficult, most unpleasant and occupationally hazardous. Yet the people clung on to this because they knew no better. That situation is changing. If people had had explained to them properly what the benefits were and what retraining was to be offered to them we would have seen a completely different attitude. Some of the unions interviewed, particularly the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union, were seeking change and seeking to be involved in the consultative process with the organisations with which they were working. We were very impressed with the union-management interaction at the Mount Isa mine between the metal workers and the mining staff and mining company. They had a considerable amount of consultation.

One of the considerations that the Committee looked at in some detail was the process of technological assessment. If we are going to manage properly the introduction of new technologies we have to solve the social and economic problems which could arise from inappropriate introductions of technology. Considerable benefits can be realised for people and for the economy generally if we have a properly managed process and proper consultation between the unions, management and the technocrats-the people who are introducing this type of technology.

Currently, cost-benefit assessments, where they are made, tend to be done by institutions which are primarily interested in making profits from management from the new technology. In lots of cases this results in reactions from the employees in that industry. We saw that happen with the banking industry where the workers felt that technology was taking their jobs away and not improving their lot. It is very important that when we introduce technology we consider the appropriateness of that technology and the need for it in social terms as well as in terms of the bottom line and profits. The development of new industries and a new emphasis on industrial research and development is recognised as essential to Australia's future economic development, but no effective scheme for ensuring rapid modernisation of the Australian industry has, in fact, been adopted.

The national industry extension service scheme-NIES-which the Government has put in place gives to manufacturing industry an extension service similar to that which has been available in agriculture for some time. We have not really grasped the nettle in the area of automation of office equipment and office procedures. A number of white collar workers are very disoriented in this respect. The Committee has made a number of recommendations as to how we can ensure that appropriate technology is introduced rapidly and successfully, with the full support of employees and with minimum bureaucratic interference.

The Committee had also made recommendations as to how best the Government and the people of Australia can monitor technological change and its effects, minimise the cost and maximise the benefits of the introduction of technology in terms of improving occupational health and decreasing the number of hazards that workers face. Technologies such as office automation were introduced and appear to have produced an epidemic of repetition strain injury. We had submissions from RSI sufferers. This epidemic was due to the fact that proper conditions were not applied. With the advent of new ergonomic furniture, proper planning for the introduction of technology, proper planning for breaks in work and proper planning of work so that people are not at keyboards all of the time in a production environment but have diversity of work, this epidemic is now dying off and fewer and fewer cases are appearing in Australia.

The main recommendations of the Committee have been canvassed by both the Chairman and the Deputy Chairman. It seems important that employers should be obliged to lodge technology impact statements or in-house assessments prepared through a process of management-union consultation before major technological changes are introduced in an industry. There should be an overall assessment and monitoring of this process through the recommended technological change council and we should implement the recommendations of the Australian Science and Technology Council in this area.

The report particularly concentrates on specific groups such as business, unions, community groups, women and various disadvantaged groups within the labour market. There are some very important results in that area. I recommend the report to the Senate. I recommend the advent of a clearing house and a database on new technology applications within the ambit of the National Industry Extension Service. I recommend that the Senate continues to review this matter because new developments and the advent of more sunrise industries will be very important to Australia.