Gari Yala—First national survey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers

Work is central to most peoples lives. Love or hate your job, in or out of work, employment is intimately tied up with not only our pay packets, but our identity, self esteem and dignity as human beings. However, there is very little research out there on the lived experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the workforce.

Gari Yala, ‘Speaking Truth’ in the Wiradjuri language, is set to change this.

Run by Jumbunna’s Indigenous People and Work Research and Practice Hub and the Diversity Council of Australia, it is the first national survey to examine Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences in the workplace firsthand—from on-boarding and training to mentorship and development opportunities.

“We wanted to get an Indigenous perspective into the [policy] conversation,” explains Nareen Young, Industry Professor at Jumbunna. “Until now, discussion has tended to focus on getting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into employment, whereas the truth is, working lives are far more complex than that.”

The survey also explores Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences of racism and unconscious bias at work, an issue which potentially impacts everything from the chances of promotion to day-to-day interactions around the water cooler.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the median weekly income of Indigenous Australians aged over 15 was $623 in 2016, compared with $935 for non-Indigenous Australians. Employment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians also tends to be clustered in a few key sectors—namely, health, education, agriculture and mining.

“Too often we see fairly exploitative three-month placements here, three-month placements there that are subsidised in some way by government,” explains Nareen. “At the hub, we want to see the playing field levelled so that all Indigenous people get a crack at proper sustainable jobs.”

In line with this, survey responses will be used as the basis of a website to educate employers about Indigenous workplace experiences.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people talk amongst themselves about work all the time but we want to understand that from an evidence-based point of view. As part of this project, we’re recording those experiences and putting the data together as evidence for employers about the problems and how to tackle them—it really is time,” she says.

With the Hub working in collaboration with Diversity Council Australia, and Coles and NAB sponsoring the project, Gari Yala has the backing of some big-name employers—but It also has some big long-term goals.

“We want to provoke discussion in the community about what workplaces need to do to properly equip themselves to enable Indigenous people to explore flourishing careers,” Nareen says.

“Ultimately, we want to see employment disparity changed at all levels, not just around the number of Indigenous people in employment, but around the number of Indigenous people in all areas of the workforce, the number of Indigenous people in senior management and executive positions, and, very importantly, in the gap between Indigenous Australian’s and non-Indigenous Australian’s pay rates.”

Giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers the opportunity to speak up about their experiences is one of the main drivers behind the project.

As Nareen puts it: “Doing this survey means we have Indigenous people talking about Indigenous employment, and not just pronouncements about the issue from the likes of [Fortescue Metals CEO] ‘Twiggy’ Forest.”

The Problem

There is very little information available about the lived experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the workforce. As a result, policy discussions tend to focus on getting Indigenous people into work rather than exploring the issue in a more nuanced way.

The Response

The Indigenous People and Work Practice Hub is undertaking the first survey of Indigenous people’s experiences in workplaces around the country. This will be used to create a website for employers and other stakeholders, ensuring that workplaces that want to tackle Indigenous employment can access Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and evidence-based research into how to change things for the better.

What helped accomplish this?

The Hub is working in collaboration with Diversity Council Australia, where Nareen was CEO for seven years, and has the backing of big-name employers—Coles and NAB.

What has changed as a result?

It’s still to early to say what the long-term impacts will be, but the survey has so far given 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers the chance to contribute to policy discussions about Indigenous employment—an important first step when it comes to changing the policy conversation. The Gari Yala website is set to be launched in November 2020.
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