Industrial relations in workplaces employing Indigenous Australians

Author/editor: Hunter, B, Hawke, A
Year published: 2000
Issue no.: 200


The enactment of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 by the Howard Government represented an acceleration in the pace of industrial relations reform. Amid these significant and widespread legislative developments, little attention was paid to the plight of groups traditionally disadvantaged in the labour market-including Indigenous people. The Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey (AWIRS) 1995 is the first publicly released data set that permits analysts to directly examine the industrial relations environment in firms that employ Indigenous Australians. Information from the AWIRS employee survey and AWIRS Employee Relations Managers survey are used in the analysis.

Data and method

The AWIRS interviewers successfully collected data from 2,001 workplaces (with 20 or more employees) covering all major Australia and New Zealand Standard Industry Classification divisions except division A (agriculture, forestry and fishing) and sub-division 82 (defence). While AWIRS was conducted across all States and Territories for both metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, no workplaces in remote Australia were surveyed. Given that a substantial proportion of the Indigenous workforce live outside urban areas, AWIRS is not representative of all Indigenous workers. However, since Indigenous employment in such areas is predominantly in the 'work-for-dole' Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme, the following analysis could be considered indicative of existing workplaces that employ Indigenous workers. Using all available information from AWIRS 1995, there are 1,066 workplaces that did not employ any Indigenous people and 725 workplaces that employed some Indigenous people.

Characterising workplaces with Indigenous employees

Workplaces with Indigenous employees differ from other workplaces in that they are more likely to:

  • operate 24 hours a day;
  • have experienced industrial action in the last year;
  • employ young workers, people with a short tenure in current workplace, Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) workers and disabled workers;
  • indicate that Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) issues more prominent in the workplace culture;
  • have a written policy on racial harassment and a formal grievance procedure to resolve disputes that arise on either racial or sexual harassment grounds;
  • have managers trained in EEO, affirmative action and anti-sexual harassment procedures;
  • try new management practices such as team building, staff appraisals and evaluation schemes;
  • have employees working shift or on-call work. Consequently, they are also more likely to get paid overtime; and
  • have a similar incidence of the use of casuals. The use of contractors is more pronounced in workplaces with Indigenous employees which are 9.5 percentage points more likely to have used contractors.

Workplaces with Indigenous employees are substantially more likely to be in both the public, non-commercial and the public, commercial sectors. That is, in addition to being more involved in the public sector and government business enterprises, Indigenous workers are probably more likely to be employed in charities, churches and non-governmental welfare bodies than other workers. Therefore, given that workplaces with Indigenous employees are 20 percentage points less likely to be commercial private organisations than other workplaces, differences in the industrial relations cultures of the respective sectors may be reflected in the distinct character of workplaces in which Indigenous people work. The sensitivity analysis of workplace characteristics by sector and workplace size showed that the above results were robust.

Workplace bargaining, conflict resolution, award coverage, remuneration and recruitment

Workplaces with Indigenous employees seem to have been successful in securing a written workplace agreement. The composition of coverage of these written agreements is consistent with a relatively flexible working environment with agreements in such workplaces being more likely to cover grievance procedures, OHS, leave arrangements and provisions for training. Other workplaces are more likely to have workplace agreements covering superannuation and pay rates.

Workplaces with Indigenous employees are more than twice as likely to have had to use a grievance procedure for discrimination (including either racial or sexual harassment) and are substantially more likely to have used the procedure for OHS disputes. These workplaces are also more likely to have a written policy on EEO/affirmative action than other places of work. While almost all such policies cover recruitment and promotion, such workplaces are also more likely to cover training, workforce composition and employment targets than other workplaces.

The coverage of federal awards for workplaces with Indigenous employees is substantially lower, for all occupations, than for other workplaces. For industrial relations reforms to affect the majority of Indigenous workers it will need to address both the State and federal systems.

The breakdown of pay and conditions for the various occupations reflects the lesser use of individual contracts in workplaces with Indigenous employees. It appears that wage rates in these workplaces are much more likely to be based on the standards set in the award with less emphasis on increments to salaries and conditions through either over-award rates or contracts.

External advertisements are the major recruitment method for all occupations but are more likely to be used in workplaces with Indigenous employees than other workplaces. There appears to be little difference in the use of internal advertisements between workplaces. Indeed, if anything, workplaces with Indigenous employees are more likely to use internal advertisements, especially for non-managerial and non-professional occupations.


Workplaces with Indigenous employees are qualitatively different from other workplaces because such workplaces use industrial relations practices consistent with encouraging greater cultural diversity within the firm. Whether this results from proactive measures on the part of management, or whether they result as a strategic initiative to solve existing problems is not clear.

One of the more disturbing findings of this paper is that many workplaces with Indigenous employees appear to have chosen the so-called 'low-wage' strategy for cost minimisation. While the wage differentials between workplaces are relatively minor, the differences in capacity utilisation, overtime usage, the concentration of disadvantaged workers and even the pattern of award coverage point to a 'low-wage' strategy being followed in such workplaces. The findings that workplaces with Indigenous employees are more likely to pay award wages indicates the importance to Indigenous people of ensuring award minimums remain current, and that enterprise bargains do not become the sole means of altering wages and conditions. An alternative policy option is to increase skill levels of the Indigenous workforce to facilitate competition for higher wage jobs.

ISBN: 07315 2635 X

ISSN:1036 1774

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