A comparative analysis of the industrial relations experiences of Indigenous and other Australian workers

Author/editor: Hunter, B, Hawke, A
Year published: 2000
Issue no.: 201


Indigenous employment policy needs to be informed by a good understanding of the industrial relations culture of workplaces. For example, the local industrial relations environment is a major factor determining wages, job conditions and the quality of workplace life. This study contrasts the experience of industrial relations for Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers in workplaces with some Indigenous employees.

The Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey (AWIRS) 1995 is the first publicly released dataset 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.

Differences between Indigenous and other employees in workplaces that employ Indigenous workers

The power of the following analysis lies in the ability to compare the industrial relations experience of Indigenous workers with that of other workers in the same workplaces.

Indigenous respondents to the employee survey are more likely to be managers and professionals than in the (Indigenous) population at large. The Indigenous respondents are also more likely to be in these occupations than non-Indigenous employees in the same workplaces. Since Indigenous managers and professionals are more likely to have bargaining power in the workplace than if they were in manual occupations, caution must be exercised before generalising the following analysis to the total Indigenous workforce.

Notwithstanding the bias towards Indigenous managers, it is possible to make some qualitative statements using the data:

  • The relatively poor educational attainment among Indigenous people is widely documented. The AWIRS data reflect this with Indigenous workers being less educated than other workers in the same firms.
  • Indigenous employees in AWIRS are more likely to be short-term employees than other workers in workplaces with Indigenous employees. While the relatively short tenure of Indigenous workers may reflect the incursions of Indigenous workers into new fields and occupations, it is more likely to reflect the incidence of non-permanent work. Another explanation could be the higher level of geographic and occupational mobility of Indigenous workers.
  • While there is little variation in the incidence of health conditions or disabilities among workplaces, respondents in workplaces with Indigenous employees are slightly more likely to have a health condition or disability than those from other workplaces.
  • The fact that Indigenous respondents are less likely to prefer fewer hours and are more likely to prefer more hours of work per week is probably indicative of the fact that underemployment is common among Indigenous workers.
  • Indigenous respondents are less likely to get holiday pay and paid sick leave than other respondents in the same workplaces. They are also more likely to have a fixed term contract than non-Indigenous workers.
  • While Indigenous respondents are more likely to be able to get permanent part-time work, they are less likely to be able to access maternity/paternity leave or bonuses for job performance than non-Indigenous respondents.
  • Indigenous employees are consistently less likely to report that they have control over their working environment. However, they are more likely to indicate they think workplace managers are trustworthy than other respondents in workplaces with Indigenous employees.
  • Even within the same workplaces, Indigenous workers are more likely to have days off work because of work-related injury and illness than other workers. For example, Indigenous respondents to the AWIRS employee survey are more than 20 percentage points less likely have had some days off than non-Indigenous respondents. They are also likely to have more days off than non-Indigenous respondents.
  • Workplaces with Indigenous employees are more likely to: have a grievance procedure, have an Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) committee and to use the grievance procedure to resolve an OHS dispute. Clearly, the existence of mechanisms to deal with OHS problems within a workplace does not appear to have prevented injuries to Indigenous workers, although the incidence among non-Indigenous workers is not significantly different across workplaces.
  • Indigenous respondents are 6.6 percentage points less likely to have ever been a union member than non-Indigenous respondents in the same workplaces.
  • Once Indigenous respondents have been in a union, they are more likely to indicate satisfaction with union service (50.4 per cent compared to 40.3 per cent of analogous non-Indigenous respondents). In terms of attendance at union meetings, Indigenous union members are more likely to indicate that they were active union members.

Policy implications

Legislation by itself cannot address the industrial concerns of the Indigenous workforce. Indigenous interests need to be independently and actively articulated within the industrial relations system and statutory framework. Obviously unions are not the only possible advocates for Indigenous interests. Other advocates could include legal aid bodies, Indigenous organisations and, of course, individual Indigenous persons. All of these options require appropriate resources and funding to undertake such advocacy.

ISBN: 0 7315 2636 1

ISSN:1036 1774

Updated:  27 May 2009/Responsible Officer:  Centre Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications