Skip to content
Tier 2 - Determinants of health

2.07 Employment

Key facts

Why is it important?

The relationship between employment and health is complex and interconnected. Participation in employment has important consequences for health, social and emotional wellbeing and living standards for individuals, families and communities (Bambra 2011; Gray et al. 2014b), for example, financial security, social status, personal development, social relations and self-esteem (Lowry & Moskos 2007; Marmot et al. 2008). Workforce participation rates are considerably higher for people with better health, particularly mental health. While relatively poor health is a major contributor to lower labour market attachment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Kalb et al. 2012), being disabled, or looking after someone in poor health are also barriers to labour force participation (Belachew & Kumar 2014). Indigenous Australians that live in Non-remote areas tend to have higher rates of employment than those living in Remote areas.

In 2008, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) committed to halving the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018. However, this target was not met.

The recently established National Agreement on Closing the Gap has identified the importance of ensuring there is strong economic participation and development for both Indigenous Australians and their communities, and to ensure Indigenous youths are engaged in employment or education. This includes specific outcomes, targets and indicators to direct policy attention and monitor progress. Reporting arrangements for the new agreement are being established. The data presented in this report predates the establishment of the Agreement.

Employment is interconnected with other social determinants of health, such as education (see measures 2.04 Literacy and numeracy, 2.05 Education outcomes for young people and 2.06 Educational participation and attainment of adults), income (see measure 2.08 Income), and the index of disadvantage (see measure 2.09 Index of disadvantage).

Common labour force terms

Labour force: Those who are either engaged in economic work (employed) or actively looking for work and available to start (unemployed).

Not in the labour force: Those who are not actively looking for work or actively looking but not available to start.

Participation rate: The labour force (those employed and unemployed) as a proportion of the population.

Employment rate (employment to population ratio): The percentage of the population who are employed.

Unemployment rate: The percentage of the labour force who are unemployed.

Working-age population: Those aged 15–64.


What does the data tell us?

Labour force participation and employment

In the 2018–19 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (Health Survey), an estimated 60% (299,700) of Indigenous Australians of working age—those aged 15–64—were participating in the labour force, and 49% (243,780) were employed. For non-Indigenous Australians, 80% of the working-age population was in the labour force, and 76% were employed (Table D2.07.3, Figure 2.07.1).

Figure 2.07.1: Employment outcomes, people aged 15–64, by Indigenous status, 2018–19

This bar chart shows that the employment rate for working age Indigenous Australians was lower than for non-Indigenous Australians (49% compared with 76%) and the proportion of Indigenous Australians who were not in the labour force was higher for Indigenous Australians (40% compared with 20%).

Source: Table D2.07.14. AIHW and ABS analysis of  National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2018–19 and National Health Survey 2017–18.

In 2018–19, Indigenous Australians aged from 25 to 54 were most likely to participate in the labour force (64%–66%) and most likely to be employed (54%–55%). Although the proportions were higher, a similar pattern was followed for non-Indigenous Australians aged 25–54 in the labour force (85%–87%) and for those employed (82%–83%) (Table D2.07.3, Figure 2.07.2).

Figure 2.07.2: Labour force status, people aged 15–64, by Indigenous status and age, 2018–19

This bar chart shows that the employment and labour force participation rates for Indigenous Australians were lower than that of non-Indigenous Australians. The rates were highest among those aged 25 to 54 in both populations.

Source: Table D2.07.3. AIHW and ABS analysis of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2018–19 and ABS National Health Survey 2017–18.

Across the states and territories, the employment rate for Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 in 2018–19 ranged from 37% in the Northern Territory to 61% in the Australian Capital Territory. The smallest gap in employment rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was in Tasmania (19 percentage points), and the largest gaps were in the Northern Territory (48 percentage points) and Western Australia (37 percentage points) (Table D2.07.5, Figure 2.07.3).

Figure 2.07.3: Employment rate, people aged 15–64, by jurisdiction and Indigenous status, 2018–19

This bar chart shows that, the employment rate for Indigenous Australians was highest in the ACT (61%) and lowest in the NT (37%) and rates in other jurisdictions ranged from 40% to 54%. For non-Indigenous Australians, the highest was in the NT (86%) and the lowest was in Tasmania (73%). The greatest difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was in the NT (49 percentage points) and the smallest difference was in Tasmania (19 percentage points).

Source: Table D2.07.5. AIHW and ABS analysis of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2018–19 and National Health Survey 2017–18.

In 2018–19, the employment rate for Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 was highest in Major cities at 59%. This was followed by Inner regional areas (51%), Remote areas (42%), and Outer regional areas (38%). The lowest employment rate was in Very remote areas at 35% (Table D2.07.6, Figure 2.07.4).

Figure 2.07.4: Labour force status of Indigenous Australians aged 15–64, by remoteness, 2018–19

This bar chart shows that the labour force status for Indigenous Australians varies greatly by remoteness. The employment rate for working age Indigenous Australians was highest in Major cities (59%) and lowest in Very remote areas (35%). By contrast, the rate of persons not in the labour force was lowest in Major cities (30%) and higest in Very remote areas (56%). The unemployment rate was highest in Outer regional areas (28%) and lowest in Major cities (15%).

Source:  Table D2.07.6. AIHW and ABS analysis of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2018–19 and National Health Survey 2017–18.

Of Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 in 2018–19, 30% (146,140) were employed full-time, and 20% (97,640) were employed on a part-time basis, while for non-Indigenous Australians, 49% were employed full-time, and 27% were employed part-time (Table D2.07.6).

The proportion of employed Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 remained relatively unchanged between 2008 (48%) and 2018–19 (49%), after excluding Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) participants from the 2008 data. The CDEP, which has now ceased, accounted for almost half of all employment in Very remote areas in 2008, and changes in CDEP coverage has had an effect on comparisons of Indigenous employment rates over time. One common adjustment made for consistent comparisons is by not classifying CDEP participants as being employed in the 2008 baseline data; that reduces the employment rate for Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 in 2008 from 54% to 48% (PM&C 2020) (Table D2.07.14, Figure 2.07.5).

The proportion of non-Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 who were employed remained relatively steady between 2008 (75%) and 2018–19 (76%). With CDEP excluded from the 2008 data for Indigenous Australians, the gap between employed Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was the same in 2008 and 2018–19 (27 percentage points) (PM&C 2020) (Table D2.07.14).

From 2008 to 2018–19, after excluding CDEP participants from the 2008 data, the employment rates for Indigenous males aged 15–64 remained similar (55% and 54%), and there was a small increase for Indigenous females (from 42% to 45%) (PM&C 2017) (Table D2.07.8).

The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap, agreed to in July 2020, specifies a target to increase the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 25–64 who are employed to 62% by 2031.

Figure 2.07.5: Employment rate, persons aged 15–64, by Indigenous status, 2008, 2012–13, 2014–15 and 2018–19

This bar chart shows that employment rates for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians remained relatively stable between 2008 and 2018-19, however, the rate for Indigenous Australians was lower (around 48 to 49%) than non-Indigenous Australians (ranging from 73% and 76%).

 Note: The CDEP employment rate for 2012–13 reflects CDEP participation only in remote areas. Data on CDEP participation were not collected in non-remote areas in the ABS 2012–13 AATSIHS. Hence time trend based on non-CDEP employment in 2012–13 should be treated with caution. This trend reflects full adjustment for all CDEP participants in 2008 but only partial (remote area) adjustment in 2012–13.

Source: Table D2.07.14. AIHW and ABS analysis of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey 2008 and 2014–15;  Survey of Education and Work 2008, 2012 and 2014; and Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2012–13;  National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2018–19; and National Health Survey 2017–18. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Closing the Gap Prime Minister's Report 2017.

Unemployment rate

The 2018–19 Health Survey showed that 55,770 Indigenous Australians of working age were unemployed. When expressed as a proportion of the labour force, the unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians was 3.8 times the rate for non‑Indigenous Australians (19% compared with 5%, respectively) (Table D2.07.3). Of Indigenous Australians aged 18–64 who were unemployed, 34% had been unemployed for 12 months or more (Table D2.07.7).

Of unemployed Indigenous Australians aged 15–64, 42% (20,610) reported high or very high levels of psychological distress, compared with 22% (48,960) of those who were employed in 2018–19 (Table D2.07.13).

Not in the labour force

In the 2014–15 Social Survey, the main reasons for not looking for a job that were given by selected Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over who were not in the labour force were childcare (22%), studying or returning to study (20%) and having a long-term health condition or disability (18%) (Table D2.07.11).

Research has shown that many of those not in the labour force in remote areas are still engaged in productive activities supporting their community (Altman et al. 2005).

Unpaid carers and labour force status

In 2014–15, Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 who provided unpaid assistance to a person with disability, illness or due to old age were less likely to be in the labour force than non-Indigenous Australians, with 39% (42,210) not in the labour force compared with 28%, respectively. Similarly, they were more likely to be unemployed, with a rate 4 times the rate for non-Indigenous carers—24% (15,740) compared with 6%, respectively (Table D2.07.4).

Educational attainment and employment

In relation to highest educational attainment, in 2018–19, the rate of employment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians aged 20–64 who had attained a bachelor degree or higher qualification was 80% (26,120) compared with 86%, respectively, and for an advanced diploma or diploma the rate was 76% (25,620) compared with 83%, respectively. The differences in the employment rates between the two populations were greater for those who had attained educational levels below advanced diploma/diploma (Table D2.07.12, Figure 2.07.6).

Figure 2.07.6: Employment rate for persons aged 20–64, by highest level of educational attainment and Indigenous status, 2018–19

This bar chart shows that the employment rate increased as the level of education increased for Indigenous Australians. The pattern was the same for non-Indigenous Australians, with the exception of a spike upwards for those with a year 9 and below level of attainment. For those with a bachelor degree or above, 80% of Indigenous and 86% of non-Indigenous were employed. For those with a certificate I or certificate II, 30% of Indigenous and 16% of non-Indigenous Australians were employed. For those with a highest educational attainment of year 9 or below, 25% of Indigenous and 46% of non-Indigenous were employed.

Source: Table D2.07.12. AIHW and ABS analysis of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2018–19 and National Health Survey 2017–18.

The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap specifies a target to increase the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 15–24 engaged in employment or education to 67% by 2031.

The baseline data for this new target was derived from the 2016 Census, and the 2016 Indigenous rate was 57% compared with 80% for non-Indigenous 15–24 year-olds.

Employment by occupation

Data from the 2016 Census of Population and Housing showed that the top five occupations for Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 were community and personal service workers (17%; 30,530), general labourers (15%; 27,340), technicians and trades workers (14%; 24,140), professionals (13%; 23,735) and clerical and administrative workers (13%; 22,831). For non-Indigenous Australians, the most common occupations were professionals (22%), technicians and trades workers (14%), clerical and administrative workers (14%), managers (13%), and sales workers/labourers (both 9%).

The main industries in which employed Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 worked were health care and social assistance (14%; 25,610), public administration and safety (11%; 19,640), education and training (9%; 16,810), construction (9%; 15,980) and retail trade (9%; 15,970). For non-Indigenous Australians, the most common industries of employment were health care and social assistance (13%), retail trade (10%), education and training (9%) and construction (9%).

Indigenous females accounted for 78% (19,950) of Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 employed in the health care and social assistance industry and Indigenous males made up 90% (14,440) of Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 employed in construction (ABS 2017).

Main difficulties in finding work

Data from the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (Social Survey) showed that, of Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 who were unemployed, 92% (48,735) reported having difficulties finding work. The main difficulties in finding work were that there were no jobs in the local area or a particular line of work (41%; 21,640), issues with transport (32%; 17,020), not having a driver’s licence (31%; 16,350) and having insufficient education or training skills (30%; 15,960) (Table D2.07.10, Figure 2.07.7).

Figure 2.07.7: Main difficulties finding work, by type of difficulty, unemployed Indigenous Australians aged 15–64, 2014–15

This bar chart shows that unemployed Indigenous Australians who reported having difficulties in finding work reported the major causes to be: no jobs in local area or line of work (41%), transport problems/distance (32%), not having a driver’s licence (31%), and insufficient education/training skills (30%).

Source: Table D2.07.10. AIHW and ABS analysis of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey 2014–15.

What do research and evaluations tell us?

Employment is an important determinant of health outcomes. Health benefits from being employed include providing an income (see measure 2.08 Income), and giving the person a sense of purpose (Marmot et al. 2008). At the same time, employment can have adverse health effects; for example, working longer hours or the insecurity of working too few hours may lead to a deterioration of health (Laplagne et al. 2007). Job quality, employment conditions, the nature of work and job security are therefore essential factors of employment and its effect on health (Arthur 1999; Marmot et al. 2008; Wilkinson & Marmot 2003).

Being unemployed can unfavourably affect a person’s health. Health risks from being unemployed include the effect on a person’s mental health and stress-related health effects such as heart disease (Pickett & Wilkinson 2015; Wilkinson & Pickett 2009); material deprivation for necessities such as food security, safe neighbourhoods and adequate housing (Bambra 2011); and the effects from adopting unhealthy coping behaviours (Dooley et al. 1996).

Experiencing extended or repeated periods of unemployment compound these effects. For example, it has been found that the population experiences poorer health and lower life expectancy following an economic downturn (Taulbut et al. 2013).

The extent to which employment affects health is, however, less understood and needs more research (Ahonen et al. 2018).

In addition to poor health outcomes, lower levels of education and training, higher levels of contact with the criminal justice system, experiences of discrimination and lower levels of job retention may contribute to lower employment rates for Indigenous Australians (Gray et al. 2012).

Indigenous Australians face greater barriers to employment. The Senate Standing Committee: Appropriateness and effectiveness of the objectives, design, implementation and evaluation of the Community Development Program (CDP) 2017 report (Wright et al. 2017) noted a number of reasons why there may be more joblessness in remote communities:

  • Indigenous Australians are more likely than non-Indigenous Australians to live in Remote or Very remote areas (ABS 2014).
  • The younger age profile of a remote community combined with the higher prevalence of unemployment in the younger age cohorts results in higher levels of unemployment in those communities compared with their non-remote counterparts.
  • The difference in employment outcomes in remote and non-remote locations is likely to involve the differential access to educational institutions for such areas (Gray et al. 2014a).
  • Work opportunities in Regional and Remote areas of Australia differ from those in Major cities because of the nature of their labour markets, with differing types and availability of work (ABS 2014).
  • The effects of trauma on individuals may make it difficult to maintain employment because of difficulties in regulating emotions and behaviour.
  • A struggle exists between the cultural and family responsibilities of Indigenous Australians and their obligations under the CDP.
  • Some businesses are reluctant to employ Indigenous Australians or employ locally.

It has also been suggested that the historical exclusion of Indigenous Australians and institutional racism affecting participation in education, training and the national economy is associated with a range of adverse health conditions, including internal stress and subsequent mental health and chronic physical health problems, and attempted suicide (Nguyen & Cairney 2013).

Structural transformation to employment has, and will, disproportionately affect Indigenous Australians, especially males (Altman & Markham 2018; Lattimore 2007). Such transformation includes automation, narrowing of Australia’s economic base under deregulation and declines in mining. Continuing high arrest and imprisonment rates also inhibit Indigenous employment (Savvas et al. 2011).

While employment is generally regarded as a major determinant of health and wellbeing, in the Indigenous Australian context, the effect of employment on health may be less important. Conventional economic indicators are developed around the assumption that wealth accumulation and economic participation in the labour force are primary determinants of positive wellbeing. However, these models fail to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concepts of wellbeing that are more holistic and include the cultural, spiritual and ecological as well as the physical, social and emotional. They also fail to recognise alternative measures of economic success (and associated wellbeing) that may be more relevant for Indigenous Australians (Prout 2012).

In Remote areas, for example, fewer young Indigenous Australians are fully engaged in work or study compared with young non-Indigenous Australians (see Table D2.07.9). Despite this, self-assessed health status is better overall in remote communities—which may reflect higher involvement in cultural activities (Altman & Gray 2005; Carson et al. 2007).

The Australian Government implements a range of policies and strategies to increase Indigenous employment levels, including:

  • policies and programs that promote employment opportunities and career pathways for Indigenous Australians
  • employment service programs that seek to support individuals to transition into work and develop long-term careers.

Evaluations and findings of these policies and strategies are described below against the two key themes.

Employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians

Evidence from evaluations suggests that setting targets for Indigenous employment levels within organisations can be an effective way to increase employment opportunities and career pathways for Indigenous Australians.

The Australian Public Sector (APS) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy 2015-2018 aimed to increase the proportion of Indigenous Australians employed in the public service to 3% within three years (APSC 2015). Over the period of the strategy, the proportion of Indigenous Australians employed in the APS increased from 2.2% in 2015 to 2.9% in 2018 (Inside Policy 2019). An evaluation of the strategy found there was an increase in the diversity of roles offered to Indigenous Australians, and there was a greater awareness of Indigenous culture in the workplace (Inside Policy 2019). However, the evaluation also noted that more investment was needed in the development of Indigenous employees, including improving Indigenous representation in more senior roles, as well as a greater focus on implementing strategies to retain Indigenous staff. The Australian Government has subsequently developed an updated Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce Strategy 2020-2024 with three areas of focus: cultural integrity, career pathways and career development and advancement.

An evaluation is currently underway that includes understanding the effects of the Employment Parity Initiative (EPI) in contributing to creating Indigenous employment. Under the EPI, large employers can sign up to increase their proportion of Indigenous employees to 3%. Approaches such as EPI can potentially facilitate Indigenous mentoring and recruitment, build stronger and more culturally competent workplaces, and ensure business approaches account for, and are sensitive to, Indigenous cultural values. The evaluation is expected to consider evidence of the success of the initiative in increasing Indigenous employment levels (NIAA 2019).

The Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP) was established in 2015 to stimulate Indigenous entrepreneurship and business development, providing Indigenous Australians with more opportunities to participate in the economy through Australian Government procurement. The rationale is that increased Indigenous participation in the economy will have positive flow on benefits for Indigenous Australians (including social and economic empowerment outcomes such as improved health status and greater employment opportunities). Previous evaluations of the IPP have indicated that the number of Indigenous enterprises in Australia is growing rapidly, and noted that up to 16,000 are now in existence (PM&C 2018a, 2019a).

An evaluation of the IPP found that a policy framework that included commitments in the form of targets (in this case, procurement targets) supported the growth of Indigenous businesses and thereby Indigenous employment within these businesses (PM&C 2019a). The IPP has a target that 3% of the number of Australian Government procurements would go to Indigenous-led businesses. The evaluation found that this target was exceeded, with contracts reaching 7.1%. To support growth in the value of contracts awarded to Indigenous businesses, the IPP now also includes a value based target since July 2019, currently set at 1.25% and growing to 3% by July 2027.

Further research is required to quantify the linkage between Indigenous businesses and Indigenous employment. Research evidence suggests that an Indigenous business is much more likely to employ an Indigenous person than a non-Indigenous business (Hunter 2015). Further, case study evidence suggests that Indigenous businesses can create a climate of fostering young Indigenous people into long-term career pathways, in environments where there is self-determination and capacity to build and develop community-based values (Fordham et al. 2017).

As part of the Indigenous Entrepreneurs Fund, the Australian Government secured six business advisors to support the development of Indigenous businesses in regional areas between 2017 and 2019. A review of the program showed that there was a high demand for the service with strong government procurement and private sector opportunities emerging in regional and remote Australia. However, many potential applicants had unrealistic expectations that a concept alone would receive funding and there was a lack of understanding about business finance. Greater communication was necessary to inform applicants about the chances of success, alternative funding options and the effects and obligations upon their business should they receive funding (PM&C 2019b).

Employment programs to support Indigenous Australians to find work

Employment programs are designed to provide support services to enable Indigenous Australians to find work. These employment services include providing training, skill development and workplace opportunities. In non-remote areas, Indigenous job seekers are supported by the mainstream jobactive and Disability Employment Service providers. In remote Australia, Indigenous job seekers are assisted through the CDP.

Evaluations and reviews of employment programs and services have highlighted the benefit of tailoring services to an individual’s needs and aspirations.

In remote areas, the 2018 evaluation of the CDP highlighted the diverse strengths, barriers and support needs of participants (PM&C 2018b, 2018c; Winangali & Ipsos 2018). Community members noted the importance of providing a range of quality activities to engage participants with different interests and capabilities. Good quality activities were described as community-led or endorsed and making a meaningful improvement to the community; culturally appropriate and providing opportunities for social engagement and inclusion; and providing a clear pathway to a real job or tangible skills development.

While the share of participants enrolled in activities increased over the first two years of the CDP, many participants experienced difficulties in understanding and navigating the CDP and compliance systems, and difficulties communicating when they have a valid reason for not attending. Younger participants (under 35 years), men and some subgroups with participation and employment barriers were more likely to be penalised for not meeting their mutual obligation requirements. Community members and stakeholders saw good assessments as a way to help ensure job plans suit participants’ needs and to improve the identification of potential barriers to participation.

Further, the CDP evaluation highlighted the importance of a pathway to a job to the perceived success of the CDP in the community. After controlling for the characteristics of participants and labour market conditions, analysis of the administrative data estimated the introduction of the CDP increased the share of participants achieving a 26-week job outcome by around one percentage point to 6.9%. This is an increase from the estimated 5.7% of participants who achieved a 26-week job outcome over an 18 month period in the previous program (the Remote Jobs and Communities Program, RJCP). This result is consistent with the changes under the CDP to place a greater weight on consecutive 26-week employment outcomes in provider and employer incentive payments.

The Australian Government has also examined how to reform its mainstream employment program, jobactive. A recent review, I Want to Work: Employment Services 2020, identified the need for the employment programs to provide more tailored support services, particularly to the long-term unemployed (Department of Employment 2019). This includes making sure jobseekers have access to the support they need and in the way they need it. The review emphasises the need to digitally transform the employment services and make use of data analysis to better provide enhanced services to individuals. A new employment services model is currently being trialled, and it is expected to replace the jobactive program nationally in July 2022.

The Indigenous-specific employment services run by the Australian Government under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy complement mainstream employment services. There is a focus on providing a higher level of support for job seekers by offering Indigenous Australians work experience opportunities, further training and skills development. Current programs include the Tailored Assistance Employment Program (TAEG), EPI, Vocational Training and Employment (VTEC) and Time to Work Employment Services.

For example, the Time to Work Employment Services focuses on supporting sentenced Indigenous Australians to access employment services upon release from prison. The program builds on the Prison to Work Report commissioned by COAG in April 2016 including responding to the need to improve the coordination of government services prior to release and connecting prisoners with post-release employment service providers prior to release (COAG 2016). The program is currently being evaluated to measure its effectiveness and capacity to support Indigenous Australians released from incarceration back into work (NIAA 2019).

A small scale review comparing examples of particular TAEG and VTEC and mainstream employment services found a job placement under the TAEG service provider had a 20 percentage point higher probability of achieving a 26-week employment outcome than if they were placed under jobactive (or the preceding Job Services Australia), while those under a VTEC provider were 40 percentage points higher. The reviewed TAEG service provider and VTEC service providers were also found to place job seekers in higher-quality jobs (Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research 2019).

An evaluation of Indigenous-specific employment programs is currently underway to further explore the effectiveness of these programs (NIAA 2019).


The COAG target to halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non‑Indigenous Australians by 2018 has expired and was not met.

Further analysis may provide useful insights in the following areas: the low employment rate in Outer regional areas; the high proportion of unemployed persons without a job for 12 months or more; psychological distress among unemployed; the effect of caring responsibilities on employment; and decline in youth fully engaged in education or work, particularly in Remote areas.

A review of available evidence found that approaches with the potential to increase employment for Indigenous Australians include a strong macro economy supporting jobs growth; increasing skill levels; pre-employment assessment and training; intensive assistance for job seekers; non-standard recruitment strategies; support for retention; wage subsidies and Indigenous employment goals in government programs; and policies that support Indigenous skills required for available jobs (Gray & Hunter 2016; Gray et al. 2012). Structural changes across housing, industry, transport and roads, education and health services can also help with the employment of Indigenous Australians.

However, as noted above, while increasing employment somewhat addresses economic disadvantage, conventional measures of employment ignore the positive wellbeing aspects of cultural engagement. Therefore it is crucial for reporting frameworks to recognise, alongside conventional measures, that different cultures may have different constructs of employment and work (Carson et al. 2007; Dockery 2010).

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recommends that Indigenous wellbeing reporting frameworks include some recognition of the value of Indigenous work such as ‘making a living’ rather than simply ‘having a job’. It advocates including indicators that provide insight into Indigenous participation, and economic benefit from, customary or subsistence activities in addition to, instead of, or in comparison with mainstream economic engagement. These might include ‘working on Country’ programs—which support Indigenous Australians to combine traditional knowledge with conservation training to protect and manage their land, sea and culture (Prout 2012).

Gaining a better sense of what ‘being employed’ or ‘being workful’ means to people, such as being employed in the mainstream labour market or engagement in tasks that contribute to the community or cultural development, affords the opportunity to explore which method produces greater health benefits (Urquhart 2009). For example, Arthur (1999) suggests that in the Torres Strait, it cannot be assumed that employment is a social benefit and unemployment is a social cost (Arthur 1999).

The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap has been developed in partnership between all Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. This new Agreement outlines a better way of working, with governments working in genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to get better outcomes. The Agreement recognises the importance of education and strong economic participation among Indigenous Australians. The National Agreement specifically outlines the following outcomes and targets to direct policy attention and monitor progress:

  • Outcome 7—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth are engaged in employment or education.
    • Target—By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (15-24 years) who are in employment, education or training to 67 per cent.
  • Outcome 8—Strong economic participation and development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.
    • Target—By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25-64 who are employed to 62 per cent.

The policy context is at Policies and strategies.


  • ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2014. 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2014, Exploring the gap in labour market outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Canberra. 
  • ABS 2017. Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia—stories from the Census, 2016. ABS cat. no. 2071.0. Canberra: ABS.
  • Ahonen EQ, Fujishiro K, Cunningham T & Flynn M 2018. Work as an Inclusive Part of Population Health Inequities Research and Prevention. American journal of public health 108:306-11.
  • Altman J & Gray M 2005. The economic and social impacts of the CDEP scheme in remote Australia. Australian Journal of Social Issues 40:399-410.
  • Altman J & Markham 2018. Submission to the Senate Select Committee Inquiry into the Future of Work and Workers.
  • Altman JC, Buchanan G & Biddle N 2005. The real 'real' economy in remote Australia. In: Hunter BH (ed.). Assessing The Evidence on Indigenous Socioeconomic Outcomes: A Focus on the 2002 NATSISS. Canberra: ANU E Press, 139-52.
  • APSC (Australian Public Service Commission) 2015. Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy 2015-18.  (ed., Commission APS). Commonwealth of Australia.
  • Arthur W 1999. Careers, aspirations and the meaning of work in remote Australia. Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University.
  • Bambra C 2011. Work, worklessness, and the political economy of health. Oxford University Press.
  • Belachew TA & Kumar A 2014. Examining Association Between Self-Assessed Health Status and Labour Force Participation Using Pooled NHS Data. Canberra: ABS.
  • Carson B, Dunbar T, Chenhall RD & Bailie R 2007. Social determinants of Indigenous health. Allen & Unwin.
  • COAG (Council of Australian Governments) 2016. Prison to work report.
  • Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business 2019. New employment services model.  (ed., Department of Employment S, Small and Family Business).
  • Dockery AM 2010. Culture and wellbeing: The case of Indigenous Australians. Social Indicators Research 99:315-32.
  • Dooley D, Fielding J & Levi L 1996. Health and unemployment. Annual Review of Public Health 17:449-65.
  • Fordham AE, Robinson GM & Blackwell BD 2017. Corporate social responsibility in resource companies–Opportunities for developing positive benefits and lasting legacies. Resources Policy 52:366-76.
  • Gray M, Howlett M & Hunter B 2014a. Labour market outcomes for Indigenous Australians. The Economic and Labour Relations Review 25:497-517.
  • Gray M & Hunter B 2016. Indigenous Employment after the Boom. Canberra: CAEPR.
  • Gray M, Hunter B & Biddle N 2014b. The economic and social benefits of increasing Indigenous employment. Canberra: CAEPR.
  • Gray M, Hunter B & Lohoar S 2012. Increasing Indigenous employment rates.  (ed., Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Australian Institute of Family Studies). Canberra: Closing the Gap Clearinghouse.
  • Hunter B 2015. Indigenous employment and businesses: Whose business is it to employ Indigenous workers? : Canberra, ACT: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR).
  • Inside Policy 2019. An Evaluation of the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy: Final Report.  (ed., Commission APS).
  • Kalb GR, Le T, Hunter BH & Leung F 2012. Decomposing differences in labour force status between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
  • Laplagne P, Glover M & Shomos A 2007. Effects of health and education on labour force participation. Available at SSRN 1018889.
  • Lattimore R 2007. Men not at work: An analysis of men outside the labour force. Available at SSRN 1018872.
  • Lowry D & Moskos M 2007. Labour force participation as a determinant of Indigenous health.
  • Marmot M, Friel S, Bell R, Houweling TAJ, Taylor S & Commission Social Determinants H 2008. Closing the gap in a generation: health equity through action on the social determinants of health. The Lancet 372:1661-9.
  • Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research 2019. An evaluation of an Aboriginal Employment and Training Activity.  (ed., Agency NIA). Commonwealth of Australia.
  • NIAA (National Indigenous Australians Agency) 2019. 2019-20 Annual Evaluation Work Plan Indigenous Advancement Strategy.  (ed., National Indigenous Australians Agency). Canberra.
  • Nguyen OK & Cairney S 2013. Literature review of the interplay between education, employment, health and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote areas: working towards an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing framework. Ninti One Limited.
  • Pickett KE & Wilkinson RG 2015. Income inequality and health: A causal review. Social Science & Medicine 128:316-26.
  • PM&C (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) 2017. Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report 2017.  (ed., DPMC). Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
  • PM&C 2018a. The Indigenous Business Sector Strategy.
  • PM&C 2018b. An evaluation of the first two years of the Community Development Programme - Summary.  (ed., Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet). Canberra.
  • PM&C 2018c. The Community Development Programme: Evaluation of Participation and Employment Outcomes.  (ed., Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet). Canberra.
  • PM&C 2019a. Third Year Evaluation of the Indigenous Procurement Policy.
  • PM&C 2019b. Indigenous Entrepreneurs Fund Services Review.
  • PM&C 2020. Closing the Gap Report 2020.
  • Prout S 2012. Indigenous wellbeing frameworks in Australia and the quest for quantification. Social Indicators Research 109:317-36.
  • Savvas A, Boulton C & Jepsen E 2011. Influences on Indigenous labour market outcomes. Available at SSRN 2006294.
  • Taulbut M, Walsh D, Parcell S, Hartmann A, Poirier G, Strniskova D et al. 2013. What can ecological data tell us about reasons for divergence in health status between West Central Scotland and other regions of post-industrial Europe? Public Health 127:153-63.
  • Urquhart B 2009. Summary of selected social indicators. Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet.
  • Wilkinson RG & Marmot M 2003. Social determinants of health: the solid facts. World Health Organization.
  • Wilkinson RG & Pickett KE 2009. Income Inequality and Social Dysfunction. Annual Review of Sociology 35:493-511.
  • Winangali & Ipsos 2018. The many pathways of the Community Development Programme.  (ed., Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet).
  • Wright A, Lovett R, Roe Y & Richardson A 2017. Enhancing national data to align with policy objectives: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander smoking prevalence at finer geographic levels. Australian Health Review:348–55.

View measure data

View data visualisations, download data tables and review data sources for this measure.