First Nations workers are everywhere. The jobs summit must tackle Indigenous-led employment policy too

·5-min read

This article is part of The Conversation’s series looking at Labor’s jobs summit. Read the other articles in the series here.

On the eve of the federal government’s jobs and skills summit, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers, union representatives, peak bodies and researchers gathered in Canberra this week to ask some critical questions.

Now we have a new government and a new policy environment, what do First Nations people want around work and work policy? And how do we ensure Indigenous-led policy is a feature of the mainstream employment landscape?

This symposium was hosted by the First Nations Employment Alliance (which includes the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, the ACTU, Reconciliation Australia, Kara Keys Consulting and PWC’s Indigenous Consulting). It aimed to

listen to mob and establish a work plan and strategy to explore the future of First Nations employment that is First Nations-led and implemented.

I attended the symposium as an organiser from Jumbunna and a researcher interested in workplace diversity and Indigenous experiences at work.

Hearing attendees talk about their experiences of work (paid and unpaid) was illuminating. It’s clear First Nations workers are everywhere, but labour market experiences can be very different to those of non-First Nations workers. Existing policy doesn’t always address those needs or relate to the experiences of First Nations workers.

Read more: A law on workplace gender equality is under review. Here's what needs to change

Regional jobs and the Community Development Program

One key reform area is the Community Development Program – introduced by the Abbott government – under which people who engage in “work-like activity” could be provided welfare benefits. The program is “a remote employment and community development service administered by the National Indigenous Australians Agency”.

The Australian government has already promised to replace this program with one developed in partnership with First Nations people.

“Work-like activity” is work. People who do this work should be paid proper wages, and be provided decent working conditions, superannuation and other rights at work. As outlined in one of seven goals developed by the symposium:

no community employment program should do work-like activities, unpaid or paid for long periods of time.

Creating a healthy regional jobs market has long been a wicked, intractable problem for governments and policymakers. But it is one the federal government must urgently address so Indigenous workers can find employment on Country and in their communities.

Redefining ‘work’

One crucial element of the regional jobs discussion is the need for a redefinition of “work”, to include community responsibilities, care and caring for land and Country (as outlined in another of the seven goals discussed at the symposium).

We know Indigenous people care for Country, and do enormous amounts of important community or caring work as part of cultural responsibilities. Redefining “work” to include these things would allow people to be paid for this work. These are jobs that need to be done and if they are not, broader society suffers.

Paying people for this work is not without precedent. See, for example, the way policy has been designed to ensure Indigenous rangers are paid for caring for Country work, to the great benefit of wider Australian society.

Policymakers could consider ways to expand such programs, and fund them properly.

Caring work done by Indigenous people as part of cultural responsibilities benefits wider Australia by easing pressure on the aged care and public health systems.

Redefining this as “work” could lead to people being paid for it, perhaps through an Indigenous-designed community development program run through the NDIS.

Read more: 10 ways employers can include Indigenous Australians

We have some data – but not enough

The Gari Yala report, which I co-authored, reveals many Indigenous people face workplace challenges that non-Indigenous workers do not.

Gari Yala, which means “speak the truth” in the Wiradjuri language, involved a survey of 1,033 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander workers. It found:

  • 38% reported being treated unfairly because of their Indigenous background sometimes, often or all the time

  • 44% reported hearing racial slurs sometimes, often or all the time

  • 59% reported comments about the way they look or “should” look as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person

  • only one in three had the workplace support required when they experienced racism.

If these experiences recorded by people in paid work are any indication, there are clear problems with the way the labour market is experienced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers. Those in unpaid “work-like” jobs (via the Community Development Program) may also have had such experiences, or worse – but without high quality data on this question, we cannot say for sure.

The lack of proper data on First Nations workers – their numbers, pay, working conditions and experiences more generally – is a reccurring theme. The onus is on unions and governments to start collecting these data.

For example, we know anecdotally Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are concentrated in the health, education and care sector but we don’t have very good statistics on this. That makes it hard to identify what exact policy changes are needed.

The recent discussion about industry-wide bargaining could theoretically improve wages for Indigenous workers, but again we need to know more about where they are, their pay and working conditions. We must find the gaps so we can address them via Indigenous-designed policy.

First Nations workers are everywhere, working in mainstream employment, as your coworkers and staff. Australia needs industrial policy reflecting this fact, and Indigenous-led policy design to meet the needs of First Nations workers.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Nareen Young, University of Technology Sydney.

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Nareen Young is a member of the NTEU and the ALP.