Blaming individuals will get indigenous employment policy nowhere

Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin must ensure policy reflect cultural differences.

The Gillard Government’s new discussion paper on indigenous welfare policy in the Northern Territory continues Labor’s rhetorical reliance on a loosely defined concept of the “dignity of work”.

Federal Labor’s focus on employment should come as no surprise. Before the last election, the party’s campaign materials stated that “there is nothing more important in managing the Australian economy than to ensure that every Australian has the opportunity to work”.

According to Labor, “a job provides more than just a pay packet – it gives dignity and purpose, provides security for the future and connects people to their community.”

This view has been repeated in various speeches from Gillard since Labor’s election win.

As Peter Shergold demonstrated earlier this month, it is often argued that this is nowhere truer than for indigenous Australians. Shergold suggested that, in contrast to the damaging influence of “sit-down” money, “work is the path to dignity, self-reliance and economic opportunity”.

In its new discussion paper, the government is even clearer. According to this document, having a job “gives purpose and meaning to people’s lives”.

Measuring ‘dignity’

That paid work can contribute to positive outcomes is well established. Research and commonsense tell us that benefits can include increased income and economic independence, as well as non-financial outcomes like improved self-esteem, skill development and expanded social networks.

It is partly for these reasons that Noel Pearson and the Cape York Institute (CYI) have been such prominent advocates for indigenous engagement with what they call the “real economy” — effectively defined as the market economy, with a particular emphasis on participation in “real” jobs in the mainstream labour market.

Drawing on the work of economist Amartya Sen, researchers at the CYI argue that such paid work is a basic need, without which people’s ability to lead lives of their choosing is constrained.

However, the reality is much more complex than this narrative would have us believe.

In a recent article on The Conversation, Michael Rafferty reminds us that welfare at work is not guaranteed: job security, adequate pay and appropriate working conditions need also be considered.

And a growing body of research suggests that far from improving worker wellbeing, “inadequate” work — whether it is intermittent, poorly paid or insecure — as well as excessive or unsatisfying work can be damaging for mental and physical health.

Paid work can contribute to particular stresses for those juggling employment with unpaid caring and family commitments.

In this context, serious strains on women are sometimes identified. However, there are a number of reasons why some Indigenous people might also experience heightened tensions between paid work and other roles.

For example, many indigenous people have responsibilities to large kinship networks that may not only be more extensive than those experienced by non-indigenous Australians, but may also take on a qualitatively different character.

Here, managing social relatedness and obligation are sometimes seen as the most important “work” of day-to-day life and prioritised over attendance at the formal workplace.

This situation is complicated by higher rates of some illnesses and disabilities among the indigenous population, and an associated overrepresentation of indigenous people among those caring for others.

Differing attitudes to paid work can give rise to much misunderstanding, if not animosity. While some indigenous people may see their prioritising of social obligations as highly productive and central to their sense of identity and responsibility, non-indigenous work managers or policy makers may perceive this as simply lazy.

At the same time, indigenous people who put work commitments ahead of kinship obligations can face strong criticisms from their extended families.

Saying that some indigenous Australians may experience particular tensions between paid work and other roles does not imply this is the case for all indigenous people, just as it is not the case for all women.

Moreover, cultures are never static and inflexible. Many indigenous people, even in the remotest regions, do express a desire for paid work and are often highly adept at synthesising existing cultural practices with other influences.

A key point, though, is that notions of “responsibility” and “achievement” are socially constructed. It is pertinent to reflect on the long inculcation of the value of paid work in Western societies, with the idea that paid employment is a rational use of our time a product of particular historical circumstances.

Policy impact

Consistent with its broader approach that sees paid work as a responsibility as well as a right, the central thrust of the Gillard Government’s approach to indigenous affairs is to pathologise indigenous disengagement from mainstream employment and implement policies designed to alter individual behaviour.

In its efforts to “close the gap” it seeks to “transform individuals, families and communities by rebuilding the positive social and economic norms that underpin daily life—like going to work and paying the rent.”

At a minimum, it aims to inculcate work discipline and create “job-ready” subjects through the instruments of mutual obligation requirements and mainstream employment services.

Even if paid work is not always a straightforward route to improving indigenous wellbeing, increasing indigenous employment participation remains a legitimate policy goal.

There is no denying the significant socio-economic problems and social pathologies evident in many indigenous communities.

And there is no doubt that these — along with well-documented educational disadvantages and the demotivating influences of unemployed peers — are significant contributors to the low levels of indigenous engagement with paid work.

However, we should be wary of analyses that cast this lack of engagement with mainstream employment as simply “bad behaviour” or a lack of “positive social norms”. Such analyses conflate serious social problems with highly valued aspects of indigenous cultures that can also precipitate conflicting attitudes to paid work.

Policies that rely on such simplistic analyses may lead to significant trade-offs for indigenous wellbeing wherever a sense of purpose is more closely attached to roles outside of the formal workplace.

Because it is cultures and relationships — as well as paid work — that give meaning and dignity to people’s lives.

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