Beyond the hobbit: Precarious work, inequality and democracy

Leading NZ academic and former Cabinet Minister Professor Margaret Wilson to speak on the modern labour market

What does the hobbit have to do with industrial relations? In October 2010, the New Zealand Government was approached by Sir Peter Jackson and Warner Bros who raised their concerns that an industrial dispute with actors would force them to shoot elsewhere.

On the grounds of saving jobs and creating employment opportunities, the national government conceded to their request for more funding, and also a change to the Employment Relations Act (2000).

The Hobbit case is symptomatic of more profound shifts in the contemporary employment landscape.

There are few who have been closer to the action on these matters than the Hon Professor Margaret Wilson DCNZM.

Professor Wilson, who is in Australia as a visiting scholar at the Whitlam Institute, was Minister of the Crown in New Zealand from 1999 to 2005, with positions including Attorney-General, Minister of Labour, Minister Responsible for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, Minister of Commerce, Minister for Courts and Associate Minister of Justice.

Returning to academia after leaving politics Professor Wilson has brought her ministerial expertise to bear on her studies of precarious work and regulatory responses to changes in the labour market.

Professor Wilson argues that since precarious work is identified with those who work on the margins of the labour market, such as women, young workers and old workers, it is imperative that we look at how best to structure the policy agenda to protect and support those who are currently the most vulnerable.

“In our increasingly globalised world, individual employment situations such as casual work, part-time work and home workers may be assumed to have the legal status of an employment contract, but in reality none of the benefits accorded to such a contract,” she says.

“This is not a situation peculiar to Australia or New Zealand, it is a worldwide phenomenon. In fact a Global Union Research Network Report cites figures of a third of the workforce in Canada, the United States and Japan being characterised in precarious work. A 1996 survey in Europe estimated 3 in 10 people in employment are in precarious work, but if account is taken of jobs occupied for less than one year, then this figure jumps to 43%.”

Professor Wilson is confident that it is possible to address the inequality often present in precarious work with a policy approach that reimagines both the legal and ideological frameworks of employment.

“There should be a proper contestable process incorporating all interested, employers and workers, in the outcome. It is nonsense to assume as it is in New Zealand that individual workers can bargain with employers over wages and conditions,” she says.

“An ideological shift is also required to move governments to take co-responsibility with ‘the market’ to provide decent work and the protection for workers that will bring a halt to the growing inequality in the community.”

The Hon Professor Margaret Wilson DCNZM will deliver the forum on Precarious work: A case for reform in Melbourne on Monday 13 August 2012, from 1 – 3pm. The forum is co-presented by the Whitlam Institute within the University of Western Sydney and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

WHAT: Precarious work: A case for reform Forum
WHEN: Monday 13 August 2012, 1pm to 3pm
WHERE: The Hawke Room, ACTU, 365 Queen Street, Melbourne
RSVP: To or on 02 9685 9187

For interviews please contact Amy Sambrooke, Communications Coordinator at the Whitlam Institute on 02 9685 9072, 0421 784 253 or at


13 August 2012