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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework - Summary report


COVID-19 and employment data

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial impact on employment (see also Australia's Welfare: employment and unemployment).

In 2021, the Census was held on 10 August, during which most states and territories in Australia were under restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 restrictions affected people’s labour force status, working hours, and attendance at their usual workplace (ABS 2022c). For example, in 2021, 6.5% of employed people worked 0 hours, the highest ever recorded (with 4.1% in the 2011 Census being the second highest).

There were instructions on the Census website and online form to guide people in how to respond to questions on employment while in lockdown (ABS 2022b). If the person was employed in the last four weeks prior to lockdown, but was unable to work in the last week due to lockdown, they were instructed to select 'Yes, but absent on holidays, on paid leave, on strike or temporarily stood down'. However, complexities in interpretation of employment during lockdown may have affected how people responded to questions about their labour force status.

The employment rate – the number of employed people as a proportion of the population – remains much lower among Indigenous Australians than non-Indigenous Australians.  Education attainment is associated with employment outcomes, with people who have completed tertiary level education generally having better employment opportunities than those who have not completed further education after leaving school (National Skills Commission 2021). Two of the Closing the Gap targets relate to employment: increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (15-24 years) who are in employment, education or training to 67 per cent by 2031 (Target 7), and increasing the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25–64 who are employed to 62 per cent by 2031 (Target 8) – see Targets 7 and 8 in the Closing the Gap Information Repository.

In the 2021 Census, 52% (253,600) of Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 were employed. The employment rate was generally lower in more remote areas (Figure 5.3). In 2021, the employment rate for Indigenous Australians at working age was highest in Major cities at 58% and the lowest in Very remote areas at 32%.

Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 had a lower employment rate than non-Indigenous Australians (52% compared with 75%), and this was true across all age groups (Figure 5.3). The employment gap was higher for Indigenous Australians living in more remote areas (Figure 5.3).

For Indigenous Australians aged 25–64 (the target age group for the employment Closing the Gap target), the employment rate increased from 51% to 56% between 2016 and 2021, and the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employment rates reduced from 24.7 to 22.0 percentage points.

Figure 5.3: Employment rate (people aged 15–64), by Indigenous status, 2021

The first column chart shows that among people aged 15 to 64, the employment rate for Indigenous Australians was lower than that for non-Indigenous Australians across all age groups. The employment rate among those aged 25–34, 35–44 and 45–54, was around 58% for Indigenous Australians and 81% for non-Indigenous Australians. The employment rate was lowest for those aged 15–24 and 55–64, among Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The second column chart shows that the employment rate for Indigenous Australians decreased with increasing remoteness, from 58% in Major cities to 36% in Remote and Very remote areas combined. For non-Indigenous Australians, the rate was higher than that for Indigenous Australians across all remoteness categories.

Sources: Measure 2.07, Table D2.07.3 and Table D2.07.6. AIHW analysis of ABS Census of Population and Housing 2021 (ABS 2022a).

The proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 25–64 who were employed increased with each level of educational attainment: 85% of those whose highest level of education was a bachelor’s degree were employed; 72% of those with a Certificate III or IV level qualification; 45% of those with a secondary education at Year 10 to 12 level; and 24% of those with lower levels of qualification (Table 5.1).

Table 5.1: Employment rate for Indigenous Australians aged 25–64, by highest level of educational attainment and remoteness, 2021


Bachelor Degree Level or higher

Advanced Diploma and Diploma Level

Certificate III and IV Level

Year 10 to 12

Certificate I & II Level

Year 9 or below/no education attainment


Major cities








Inner regional








Outer regional
















Very Remote
















Note: Total includes people for whom educational attainment was inadequately described or not stated.

Source: Measure 2.07, Table D2.07.22. AIHW analysis of ABS Census of Population and Housing 2021 (ABS 2021).

Indigenous Australians aged 25–64 who reported having any of a selected list of 10 long-term health condition had a lower employment rate than those with no long-term conditions (ranging from 17% to 53% for those with a long-term health condition, compared with 65% for those without), whereas those who needed assistance with core activities was 14% compared with 62% among those who did not need assistance.

For many Indigenous Australians, there is a conflict between family responsibilities and finding and keeping a job (Venn & Biddle 2018). A recent study found that education, disability, and having spent time in prison were the most important factors underlying labour force participation (Dinku & Hunt 2021).

Nearly 2 in 5 (38%) Indigenous Australians in remote areas who were unemployed in 2014–15 reported a lack of any jobs as a barrier to finding work, compared with 1 in 5 (22%) unemployed Indigenous Australians in non-remote areas. Among Indigenous Australians in non-remote areas who were unemployed, 1 in 3 (33%) reported not having a driver’s licence as a barrier to finding work (Table 5.2).

Table 5.2: Top 5 difficulties finding work, unemployed Indigenous Australians aged 15–64, 2014–15



No jobs in local area or line of work 44% (5,700)

No jobs in local area or line of work 38% (15,500)

No jobs at all 38% (4,900)

Don't have driver's licence 33% (13,500)

Transport problems/distance 27% (3,500)

Transport problems/distance 33% (13,300)

Insufficient education, training, skills 22% (2,800)

Insufficient education, training, skills 32% (13,000)

Don't have driver's licence 19% (2,400)

No jobs at all 22% (8,800)

Source: Measure 2.07, Table D2.07.10 – AIHW and ABS analysis of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey 2014–15.

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