Ei-iE

Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education unionists highlight the need for collegial and professional support in public education

published 2020-12-18 updated 2021-01-05

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of the Australian Education Union (AEU) experience little or no employer-provided collegial and professional support across the public education system. Instead, they draw on opportunities to meet other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and workers in the education and training industry. Many of these opportunities are provided by the AEU.

These were amongst the findings of a recent national survey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of the AEU on their perceptions and experiences of racism in the workplace. 

The need for the survey was identified by the Yalukit Yulendj, the AEU’s national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education committee. This was in response to numerous reports over the years from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members about their direct and indirect experiences of racism in the workplace. AEU had also noted that there is an absence of national data specifically focused on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education workforce.

Direct and indirect experiences of racism in the workplace

In total, 399 or 16 per cent of the AEU’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members responded to the survey, which set out to gather evidence on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public education workers in Australia perceive and experience racism in their workplaces and across the system more broadly. 

The survey aimed to assess members’ perceptions and experiences of the extent to which racism manifests in the following inter-related workplace contexts and situations:

  • Workplace – perceptions and experiences in the current workplace
  • Professional – perceptions and experiences of professional support and structures
  • Personal – perceptions and experiences of personal occurrences and impacts
  • Colleagues – perceptions and experiences of occurrences on colleagues and impacts
  • Systems – perceptions and experiences of systems responsiveness

Demand for systemic stability and support

A key finding of the survey is that while most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators in most workplaces feel welcome and respected, this is not the case for ALL Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators. One of the reasons for this is a lack of stable and consistent systemic support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programmes and employees.

Whilst there are a range of policy commitments to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and programmes within the public education system at any given time, implementation is not systemically embedded. Rather, implementation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and training policy is largely reliant on circumstance, individual personalities, certain locations, and the individual commitment of those in paid leadership/managerial positions. 

Impact of AEU

In many states and territories, the AEU, its branches, and associated bodies are providing the support needed. In fact, the AEU is one of the only organisations in the education sector to regularly bring together groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers, principals, and education support professionals for professional and collegial discussions.

The AEU is a national entity, organised, and being heard, explained Merv King, a Waanyi man and member of the Queensland Teachers’ Union affiliated to the AEU. “Since becoming a member, I have had the opportunity to convey my opinions and concerns on how we can improve employment conditions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers in education. For all workers in education. And results can occur. Through the unions, it really can occur.” 

A recent example of this happened during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Realising that there was very little government policy on vulnerable worker status, King expressed his concerns to union organisers at the state and federal level. The union’s leadership responded by raising these concerns at the highest levels of government and the problem was quickly resolved.