And we are off - 140-odd of our best and brightest minds are gathering on Thursday and Friday to try to fix our economy at the Jobs and Skills Summit.
This was a highly sought after invitation - and when I was having an early snoop around, a lot of people told me they were going. These names are not on any list I can see but maybe they are appearing at the JSS Fringe Festival at the Museum of Australian Democracy ... sadly the people at MoAD say they don't have such a thing booked. Maybe it could be a place where there is a spontaneous eruption of what we need to do to make change.
It took ages to get the list of who was coming and going. Yes, finally, the invitees were released on Tuesday night. Then late Wednesday, a detailed agenda of carefully curated panels and items so broad, there are 42 PhDs contained within. Not that there's anything wrong with circuses so long as they deliver more bread.
Too late to lobby to attend but the joy of being a columnist is that it's never too late to critique or to praise.
I have a lot of hope pinned on the participation of Oanh Tran, principal solicitor, Young Workers Centre, who will know better than any about wage theft. After growing up in a home sweatshop, she has devoted her life to advocating for workers' rights and fighting against exploitation.
And I'm very grateful Joanna Howe of the University of Adelaide is there. At least someone has in mind what happens when we import planeloads of migrants who have no way of knowing what their workplace rights are. Howe says Australia's system of worker exploitation is so systemic, so entrenched, the body we have to deal with it, the Fair Work Ombudsman, cannot possibly meet the depth and scale of the enforcement challenge.
"That experiment over 25 years is an abject failure. Workplace exploitation has never been as deep and as widespread as it is today and relying on one single enforcement agency is not enough," says Howe, mother of five (don't pester me with how the number of children she has isn't relevant. You are wrong.)
Plus, Howe, Australia's lead investigator on migrant worker exploitation, tells me the design of visas for migrant workers practically invites that exploitation. Limit international students to 40 hours work a fortnight? Sure - that's just an invitation for an employer to give them appallingly-paid hours just so they can survive. Let me send you a list of what farmers do to backpackers.
Exploitation is not just limited to migrants. Just look at our hospitality sector, a heaving heterogeneous hotbed of wage theft. Those gorgeous venues in Narooma? All run by Merivale, wage thief mavens. The ALH Hotels and its owner Woolworths? Millions and millions. Mantle Group. Years and years. Rockpool. The Sydney Collective. These are just the high-profile ones. And I love eating out but I've had to limit my outings because my spouse has banned me from asking waiters about whether they are being paid fairly.
Now I've had a long hard look at the agenda for the summit - a lot of concentration on developing a vulnerable population of workers, not so much concentration on making sure everyone gets their fair share. As my colleague Crispin Hull wrote earlier this week, let's avoid this being a profits summit.
I have an absolutely genius idea to stop this happening. Every single migrant worker, unskilled or skilled, who arrives in this country should be signed up immediately to the relevant union before the first day of work. Every migrant worker should then have an assigned unionist, their own delegate, to help and defend their rights. I could just appoint myself (or Tony Burke could appoint me) to being the delegate for foreign workers coming here to work in hospitality. I'd spend my days checking pay arrangements and signing them up to United Workers Union, the union which represents the majority of those workers. I can see it now - a state-appointed official union recruiter, one for every sector.
Look, I know I should be more optimistic, more excited, now. We've had grown women get together to talk about change: Sally McManus has somehow hypnotised the Business Council of Australia's Jennifer Westacott and COSBOA's Alexi Boyd and got them to agree on sector-wide bargaining. I nearly choked on my breakfast when I read that..
Yet news out of this week's e61 thinktank's report shows a dramatic decline in profit sharing and that makes me wary of getting too excited. It's worst in hospitality but it's not too good in other industries either. The report says the decline in pass-through (from productivity to wages) in accommodation and food services is dramatic. Andrew Leigh gave an excellent speech last week where he talked about the impact of the lack of competition in industry and the impact that has on workers.
And we no longer have generous bosses who understand wage increases will feed the economy. We have bosses whose main intent is to fatten their profits and reward their shareholders. As UWU national secretary Tim Kennedy, who will be going to the summit, says of hospitality employers: "The normative practice is 'how do I get labour cost as low as I can?'. They engage foreign labour because they can exploit them."
I was hoping that Senator Barbara Pocock (new, not related to David, South Australian Greens and one of Australia's leading experts in labour) would take a starring role. No. But at least she'll be there, taking shifts with Adam Bandt. And so will Emma Dawson of Per Capita and Angela Jackson from Impact Economics. Joyfully progressive voices. Happy so many women are on the list (more than men by my count), that women's participation and childcare is on the to-do list and many thanks to The Parenthood and their executive director Georgie Dent for hassling hard.
But part of any Jobs and Skills Summit should be about not just increasing wages but also protecting them. The good news is that union reps outnumber bosses three to one. And the better news will be if we get real action on protecting those who can't protect themselves.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.