The proportion of Indigenous Australians who were employed was relatively unchanged between 2008 and 2018–19 (48% and 49%, respectively)
The unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians was 19%, almost 4 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians, in 2018-19
of unemployed Indigenous Australians reported high or very high levels of psychological distress
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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