Making our words and actions meet
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 126 No 2, 12 March 2021, page no. 24
Merv King is telling me about the first time he attended a Queensland Teachers’ Union training meeting for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members: “I walked in to the room and I thought ‘I’m here with mob. I’m here with family’. It was a great feeling,” he says, “but then I felt embarrassed for feeling like I was the only First Nations employee with union values in my workplace for so long. All my working life I’ve gotten used to being one of a very few.”
Merv, a Waanyi man from the Gulf of Carpentaria, is an electrical trades teacher at Bundaberg TAFE. As we talk, he describes feelings of professional and cultural isolation in the workplace that are all-too familiar to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers. But he’s also describing the relief that comes from finding mob.
National survey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members
A recent national survey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander AEU members on their perceptions and experiences of racism in the workplace confirms what Merv is saying.
The survey found a lack of employer-provided collegial and professional support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers across the public education system nationally. Indeed, in many states and territories, it is the AEU and its branches and associated bodies, including the QTU, that are leading the sector.
The need for the survey was identified by the Yalukit Yulendj, the AEU’s national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education (General and TAFE division) committees, in response to years of reports from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members about their direct and indirect experiences of racism in the workplace.
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.
A key finding was that while most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators in most workplaces feel mostly welcome and respected, this is not the case for all. One of the reasons for this is a lack of stable and consistent systemic support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs and employees.
Systemic stability and support
This is borne out by Merv’s own experience in a training job at the Tom Price mine in Pilbara.
“I recognised that the young Traditional Owners were not being treated fairly,” Merv tells me. “When the mine was advertising for apprenticeships, there were no applications from young local Aboriginal people.”
So Merv contacted management and raised concerns about the mine’s application process, including the requirement for applications to be submitted through the internet when most local Aboriginal kids had no internet access.
“I asked the company, ‘How can I help?’” says Merv. “I wanted to show these young kids it is possible to work in the mining industry. "
At that stage, Merv felt that the company was completely committed to the work he was doing. But when the price of iron-ore dropped in 2014, Merv was made redundant.
Similarly, the survey found that while there is a range of policy commitments in 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, location, the individual commitment of those in paid leadership/managerial positions, and of course, money.
Making our words and actions meet
“It’s frustrating when what a company writes and what they do are not the same, or for that matter a government” says Merv. “But with the Union, I see that our words and our actions are meeting.”
Data from the survey shows that Merv’s comments reflect the views of most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members, with 86.6 per cent agreeing or strongly agreeing that the union is a strong advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education, and 88 per cent of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing that the union is a strong voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members.
Merv says: “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 full, unedited version of this article can be found at https://www.aeufederal.org.au/news-media/news/2020/making-our-words-and-actions-meet