Work and Indigenous wellbeing: Developing a research agenda
Differing attitudes to paid work give rise to much misunderstanding,
if not animosity. Activities that Aboriginal people perceive as highly productive – especially skipping work to attend to familial needs –
may be perceived by non-Indigenous work managers as simply lazy.
(pages 31 - 37 of printed journal)
In the lead up to the federal election in August 2010, both major political parties emphasised the importance of paid work. In its campaign materials, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) stated that ‘there is nothing more important in managing the Australian economy than to ensure that every Australian has the opportunity to work’. Similarly, the Liberal Party of Australia highlighted that it was ‘determined to take real action’ on employment participation, ensuring that ‘all Australians who want work can find work’.
Such an emphasis on employment is not new. It is in keeping with well-practised arguments that paid work is central to individual and community wellbeing, generating not only income and financial independence but also self-esteem and social cohesion. As the ALP asserted in its election campaign, ‘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 article briefly examines the evidence behind these claims. It argues that the reality is more complex than campaign slogans would have us believe, with the benefits and costs of paid employment varying according to individual attitudes and circumstances. In particular, it draws on emerging literature to highlight possible tensions between some kinds of paid work and Indigenous quality of life. While the implications of these arguments are strongly debated, there is a clear need to better understand Indigenous attitudes to and aspirations for paid work, and to think more creatively about the appropriate policy response.
Work and wellbeing: What does the literature tell us?
The benefits of paid work
There is a long history of researching the relationship between work and wellbeing, especially among psychologists, sociologists and economists. Many studies have focussed on the ill-effects of unemployment, showing that being out of paid work (especially for long periods) can be associated with reduced health, increased financial stress and greater social isolation. As a corollary, other studies point to the potential benefits of paid employment, including economic independence and non-pecuniary outcomes like improved self-esteem, skill development and expanded social networks.
While this literature has often focussed on Western populations, similar arguments have been made in relation to Indigenous Australians. Numerous reviews of Indigenous disadvantage have implicated unemployment as contributing to a range of ills – from depression and low self-esteem to social problems like alcohol abuse, social unrest and family violence.
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 Amartya Sen, researchers at the CYI identify this as a basic capability, without which people’s ability to ‘lead lives of their choosing’ is constrained (CYI 2005: 5).
Sitting comfortably with this focus on paid work, Pearson (2000) identifies welfare dependency as the primary obstacle to overcoming disadvantage among Aboriginal people in Cape York. This argument maintains that where income support has been paid without the requirement that able-bodied recipients undertake productive activity (like education or paid work), it has undermined people’s sense of personal responsibility and induced passivity. According to the CYI (2005: 6), while income support can help to ease the financial strain of unemployment, it will tend to exacerbate its more intrinsic effects on self-esteem by sending recipients the message that ‘there’s something about you that means you have to have extra assistance’. Moreover, a lack of participation in paid work will also have profound intergenerational effects because ‘it is chiefly by working that parents convey the message to their children that opportunity exists for the taking, ensuring that attitudes of defeat are not transmitted across generations’ (CYI 2005: 10).
The costs of paid work
In recent decades, however, a growing body of literature has questioned whether all kinds of work have positive effects. Several studies suggest that ‘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. Those in casual jobs may face particular stressors including job insecurity, absence of entitlements to paid leave and a lack of control over their working hours. Those working excessive hours may face other problems like inadequate time to manage their health, invest in social relationships or pursue activities they enjoy. While negative experiences of casual work or long working weeks are not inevitable, some studies suggest that an important variable is the mismatch between actual and preferred working hours (Wooden, Warren & Drago 2009).
Of course, time pressure is not the only way in which paid work can undermine wellbeing. There is a substantial literature on ‘work-family conflict’, which refers to the many ways in which performance in either a work or family role can inhibit performance in the other (see Greenhaus, Allen & Spector 2006). This may be due not only to competing claims on a person’s time but also to the transference of stress between roles or the inappropriate application of a behaviour useful in one role to the other where it is counterproductive. A growing body of work points to the potential for negative impacts of work-family conflict on an individual’s health, with some studies also pointing to ‘crossover’ effects on the health of others within the home.
The notion of work-family conflict is most often invoked in relation to the pressures of juggling paid work with domestic commitments. In this context, particular strains on women are sometimes identified. However, there are a number of reasons why many Indigenous people might also experience heightened tensions between paid work and other roles.
Indigenous wellbeing and work
It is particularly useful here to turn to the work of anthropologists. One concern is that much of the literature on work-family conflict focuses on nuclear families. Anthropologists have argued this construct may have limited relevance to many Indigenous Australians, who often operate in large and complex kinship networks rather than relatively contained nuclear households. Responsibilities to large kinship networks may not only be more extensive than those experienced by non-Indigenous Australians, but they may also take on a qualitatively different character. In particular, there may be distinct tensions between the demands of paid work and Indigenous patterns of relatedness and social obligation, with the ongoing negotiation of complex relationships often seen as the real ‘work’ of day-to-day life.
Several recent case studies support this view. For example, McRae-Williams & Gerritsen (2010: 18) have argued that, among Aboriginal people in the remote Northern Territory community of Ngukurr, negotiating kinship relationships takes considerable time and energy, and is usually prioritised over employment commitments. This reflects the ‘Ngukurr Aboriginal world view’ in which work is ‘primarily managing social relatedness and autonomy’ and ‘reaffirming ties is equally, if not more, important than attendance at the formal workplace’.
Such findings are not reserved for remote regions. Gibson (2010) has examined attitudes to paid work among Aboriginal people in Wilcannia in regional New South Wales. Here, too, paid work and the benefits it can bring ‘sit uneasily’ with the demands of relatedness and sociality, so that while many people recognise that wages would increase their access to desired material items, few are prepared to make paid work their daily priority if it means forfeiting ‘other culturally perceived and culturally attributed values, social obligations and desires’ (Gibson 2010: 154). To meet one’s social and moral obligations in Wilcannia, as in Ngukurr, one must productively work outside the sphere of paid employment – taking a grandmother to the doctor; attending a funeral; or staying with friends or relatives to prevent an argument. This means that there appears to be ‘a “take it or leave it” attitude to employment as well as a prioritisation of other things’ (Gibson 2010: 148).
Such attitudes are very deeply ingrained. For example, according to Gibson (2010: 155), not only do they reflect the centrality of relatedness in Aboriginal personhood but, at least in the Wilcannia context, they have also become a ‘companion’ of Aboriginal identity. Here, ‘asserting blackness often means positioning oneself against whiteness’, including positioning oneself against ‘white ways of working’. Burbank (2006: 4) has suggested that ways of being that collide with Western work practices may be ingrained not only socially, but also neurologically. She argues that early learning – such as the socialisation that occurs in families – is ‘instantiated in patterns of the brain’s synapses’ and becomes both ‘enduring and highly motivating’. Since Aboriginal children are less likely than Western children to be socialised to set aside personal feelings or familial needs in order to yield to enforced schedules, there is an ‘emotional incompatibility’ between the Aboriginal cultural self and regimented Western institutions like school and paid work.
A key point, then, is that notions of ‘correct behaviour’ 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. As Kral (2010: 1) has noted, for some Indigenous people the ‘normative logic’ of a sequenced pathway involving the individual pursuit of educational credentials and subsequent entry into paid employment is a notion introduced only in very recent generations. It should not be surprising, then, that for many people the much more longstanding adherence to cultural systems in which value and meaning derive from kin-based obligations remains dominant.
Differing attitudes to paid work give rise to much misunderstanding, if not animosity. Activities that Aboriginal people perceive as highly productive – especially skipping work to attend to familial needs – may be perceived by non-Indigenous work managers as simply lazy. In addition, because the demands of relatedness cannot be left at the workplace door, it may be ‘rational’ for an employee to display what others perceive as unproductive behaviours at work – such as disobedience or disengagement – to position themself in the ongoing negotiation of kin relations (McRae-Williams & Gerritsen 2010). Returning to the idea of work-family conflict, these can be seen as examples of ‘family interference in work’, in which behaviours learnt in the family (or non-work) environment inhibit performance in the work role.
The other side of the same coin is ‘work interference in family’. For many Indigenous people this may be particularly pronounced. Putting work commitments ahead of kinship obligations can sometimes result in strong criticisms that one has abandoned Aboriginality and ‘gone whitefella way’ (Gibson 2010: 150), and even in being ‘disowned’ – temporarily or permanently – by a kinship group (Macdonald 1986: 213). Clearly, in these circumstances, participation in regular paid work may not be a straightforward route to feelings of pride and self-esteem. Indeed, where work commitments compromise the ability to support kin in expected ways, the emotional response may instead be one of shame (see McRae-Williams & Gerritsen 2010: 11).
The scenario described in this article – in which Indigenous cultures and mainstream work practices may collide – will not match the experience of all Indigenous Australians. Moreover, cultures are never static and inflexible: Indigenous people even in the remotest regions are often highly inter-cultural, adapting to and acting on contemporary environments by synthesising existing cultural knowledge and a multiplicity of other influences (Kral 2010).
Areas for serious consideration, then, are the extent to which Indigenous cultures that are ill-suited to regimented work should be accommodated by policy-makers and, conversely, the extent to which governments should seek to elicit cultural change. The current approach – dominant for at least the last decade – is to pathologise Indigenous disengagement from mainstream employment and implement policies designed to alter individual behaviour. For example, the central thrust of the Gillard Government’s approach is 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 (ALP 2010: 11).
At a minimum, the government is seeking to inculcate work discipline and create ‘job-ready’ subjects through the instruments of mutual obligation requirements and mainstream employment services. Ultimately, the hopes are for moving people off welfare and publicly-funded employment programs into mainstream jobs.
This approach is a sharp contrast to those of earlier decades. Particularly significant in this context is the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme, introduced in the late 1970s. While eventually expanded to include urban areas, it was originally an attempt to create employment for remote-living Indigenous people who lacked access to other jobs. Its key feature has been the public provision of block grants to Indigenous organisations, enabling them to employ participants on local projects at a wage notionally approximating, at a minimum, the welfare benefits they would otherwise receive.
CDEP participants have been expected to work around 16 hours per week and have often worked longer hours to receive additional income. To this extent CDEP, too, has been an attempt to instil a Western notion of work discipline in Indigenous participants. However, under the more liberal policy approach of ‘self-management’ that was dominant from the 1970s to mid-1990s, the significance of culture in work practices was much more readily acknowledged. The Hawke Government, for example, explicitly recognised what were deemed ‘traditional activities’ – including artefact production, the intergenerational transmission of cultural knowledge and subsistence food production – as ‘legitimate’ forms of employment under CDEP (Commonwealth of Australia 1987: 11). Moreover, Indigenous people were ‘empowered’ to make their own decisions about what constituted employment in line with local circumstances.
Recent changes to CDEP are a clear example of the way dominant policy thinking has radically shifted. Since the mid-1990s the aims of the scheme have been significantly redefined, moving away from direct job creation under community control towards the placement of participants into non-CDEP jobs. Key changes since then – including the closure of urban CDEPs in 2007 and regional CDEPs in 2009 – have seen the number of participants fall from over 30,000 to less than half that figure. The culmination of these changes is the current plan to transition all remaining CDEP participants onto unemployment benefits in 2012, with the stated aim of encouraging them into the mainstream labour market.
The Australian Government sees this as part of its strategy to halve the gap in Indigenous employment by 2018, but the predicted outcomes are strongly contested. Critics of CDEP have characterised the scheme as creating ‘pretend jobs’ and a disincentive to look for alternative employment (see Hughes 2007). From this perspective, the changes should produce positive results. On the other hand, supporters of CDEP have argued that it has underpinned a range of productive economic activities (like enterprise development, arts production and natural resource management) as well as facilitating transitions into suitable mainstream jobs where available (see Altman, Gray & Levitus 2005). This perspective suggests that, when ‘work’ is appropriately defined and sympathetic to cultural practices, Aboriginal people are no less likely to be committed and industrious than other workers. It also raises concerns that the changes to CDEP and reorientation towards mainstream employment services will be incompatible with realities in remote areas and, in practice, lead to increased welfare dependence if CDEP participants are shifted on to unemployment benefits but do not transition into other jobs.
Unfortunately, a government review of the impacts of closing urban CDEPs was quickly terminated and no results have been publicly released. The little evidence available is garnered only from questions put to a Senate committee. This suggests that in March 2009 – around two years after the closures – 40 per cent of former participants were receiving unemployment benefits. It is not known what proportions had secured ongoing non-CDEP work or exited the labour force. However, this figure might suggest that, even in areas with relatively robust labour markets, the removal of CDEP as a supposed incentive to find alternative work has not resulted in strong employment outcomes. More robust data are needed if the impacts of the next round of changes are to be rigorously assessed.
The changes to CDEP have come amidst a broader critique of self-determination that suggests it exacerbated social problems by reducing external authority and allowing access to alcohol and passive welfare money; and that it allowed naïve notions of ‘Indigenous culture’ to impede progress by facilitating disengagement with the market economy (see Sutton 2009). Of course, there is no denying the significant socio-economic problems and serious social pathologies in many Aboriginal communities, perhaps most troubling being the high rates of alcohol and drug abuse and interpersonal violence. And there is no doubt that these – along with well-documented educational disadvantages and the de-motivating influences of unemployed peers – are significant contributors to the low levels of Indigenous participation in non-CDEP employment.
However, this article suggests we should be wary of analyses that cast the lack of engagement with mainstream employment as simply ‘bad behaviour’ (Johns 2010). Such analyses conflate serious social problems with highly valued aspects of Indigenous cultures that also precipitate conflicting attitudes to paid work.
Looking for a way ahead
In policy debates where such strongly held and opposing positions endure, it is difficult to see a way ahead. It is perhaps easier to be torn between competing views. For example, one may acknowledge that Indigenous cultures and priorities are intrinsically valuable irrespective of their compatibility with regimented work, while at the same time support interventions that seek to change these priorities in the hope that socio-economic gains might be made. However, if the studies documented here are right, then the internal contradictions of this position are clear: it is likely that any efforts to force change in Indigenous cultures will have significant trade-offs for Indigenous wellbeing wherever a sense of purpose is more closely attached to kinship obligations than paid work.
A more promising way forward, then, is to build on the emerging research highlighted in this article; not only exploring ways in which some Indigenous cultures and mainstream work may collide, but also identifying the kinds of work – and work practices – that might better match diverse Indigenous attitudes and aspirations.
Wooden, M, Warren, D and Drago, R, 2009, ‘Working time mismatch and subjective well-being’, British Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 47, no. 1, pp. 147–179
Altman, J.C, Gray, M.C and Levitus, R, 2005, ‘Policy issues for the Community Development Employment Projects scheme in rural and remote Australia’, CAEPR Discussion Paper No. 271/2005, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, ANU, Canberra.
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Hughes, H, 2007, Lands of shame: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘homelands’ in transition, Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney.
Johns, G, 2010, ‘Submission to the Australian Government 2010 Indigenous Economic Development Strategy: Draft for consultation’, Australian Catholic University, Brisbane, viewed 31 January 2011.
Kral, I, 2010, ‘Generational change, learning and remote Australian Indigenous youth’, CAEPR Working Paper No. 68/2010, CAEPR, ANU, Canberra, viewed 21 January 2011.
Macdonald, G, 1986, ‘The Koori way’: The dynamics of cultural distinctiveness in settled Australia, PhD thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Sydney, Sydney.
McRae-Williams, E and Gerritsen, R, 2010, ‘Mutual incomprehension: The cross cultural domain of work in a remote Australian Aboriginal community’, The International Indigenous Policy Journal, vol. 1, no. 2, Article 2.
Pearson, N, 2000, Our right to take responsibility, Noel Pearson and Associates, Cairns.
Sutton, P, 2009, The politics of suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
A condensed version of a lecture delivered to the Social Justice Initiative Seminar at the University of Melbourne on 7 September 2010.