Employment lies at the heart of socioeconomic opportunity. It provides direct economic benefit to individuals and families, including financial security, increased social mobility and access to higher standards of living. Beyond this, it is well established that working is associated with benefits to physical and mental health, social inclusion and improved developmental outcomes for the children of employed persons (Biddle 2013; Gray et al. 2014; WHO 2012).
This page provides an overview of employment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over time.
See Indigenous income and finance for more information on the household and personal income of Indigenous Australians (including wages and salaries from employment).
In 2020, all Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations worked in partnership to develop the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National Agreement), committing to 4 key Reform Priorities and 16 socioeconomic Closing the Gap targets. Two of these targets directly relate to employment.
National Agreement on Closing the Gap employment-related targets
Target 7: By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (15–24 years) who are in employment, education or training to 67 per cent.
- compared with a 2016 baseline level of 57%.
Target 8: By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25–64 who are employed to 62 per cent.
- compared with a 2016 baseline level of 51%.
Note: The baseline values for these targets were derived from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2016 Census of Population and Housing (Census).
Prior to establishment of the National Agreement, there were 7 Closing the Gap targets set by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) under the National Indigenous Reform Agreement; one of which was to halve the gap in employment rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians between 2008 and 2018. The Closing the Gap Report 2020 found that this target expired unmet.
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2018–19, conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, provides the most recent data on employment rates of Indigenous Australians. For those aged 25–64 (the age group specified in Target 8 of the National Agreement), it was 52% in 2018–19 (ABS 2019a).
For the rest of this page, employment rate data are presented for Indigenous Australians aged 15–64, for consistency with how this target was previously defined.
Comparing the most recent data for people aged 15–64 with earlier surveys:
- between 2007–08 and 2018–19, the overall employment rate for Indigenous Australians dropped from 54% to 49%, while the rate for non-Indigenous Australians remained stable at roughly 76% (Figure 1)
- in the 2017–18 to 2018–19 period, the overall gap in employment rates between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians was 27 percentage points (Figure 1)
- if the employment trends presented on this page are adjusted for the effect of changes and closure of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme, then the employment rate for Indigenous Australians remained stable over the 2008 to 2018–19 period at around 49% (SCRGSP 2020).
Community Development Employment Projects
Assessing Indigenous employment trends is complicated by the many changes in the coverage – and subsequent re-branding and closure in 2013 – of the CDEP. The CDEP was an employment assistance program established in 1977 to create employment opportunities in remote communities by pooling unemployment benefits.
In ABS surveys and Censuses conducted before July 2009, all identified CDEP participants were classified as being employed. This contributed to an overstatement of Indigenous employment. Before its closure in 2013, the CDEP was already being phased out and progressively replaced by the Community Development Program (CDP). Since then, ABS products such as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey consider CDP participants to be employed only if they are engaged in employment unrelated to the CDP.
If the trend in Indigenous employment rates is computed by excluding all participants in the CDEP (in 2002 to 2012–2013 data) and the CDP (in 2018–19 data), then the employment rate for Indigenous Australians increased markedly between 2002 (34%) and 2008 (48%). Since then, it has remained more or less stable, at 46% in 2012–13 and 49% in 2018–19 (SCRGSP 2020).
Excluding CDEP and CDP participants, the employment rate for Indigenous Australians in remote and non-remote areas in 2018–19 was 36% and 52%, respectively. These rates have remained stable since 2008 (SCRGSP 2020).
In 2018–19, the employment rate of Indigenous Australians decreased consistently with increasing remoteness, from 59% in Major cities to 35% in Very remote areas. This pattern is consistent with that of data for 2014–15; however, it was not as pronounced in earlier reference periods (for example, 2004–05 and 2007–08) (Figure 1).
The employment rate of Indigenous Australians in 2018–19 also varied markedly by state and territory. It was highest in the Australian Capital Territory (61%), followed by Tasmania (54%) and New South Wales (54%), and lowest in the Northern Territory (37%). This pattern has remained roughly the same since 2014–15. In previous reference periods, however, the employment rate in New South Wales was considerably lower (for example, 45% in 2012–13) and the rate in the Northern Territory was closer to that for other jurisdictions, peaking at 51% in 2008 (Figure 1). The decline in the Indigenous employment rate in the Northern Territory partly reflects the flow-on effect of closing the CDEP.