Claire Williams

Author & Sociologist



Australian Aboriginal or Indigenous people have far lower rates of employment compared to the non-Aboriginal population. Yet Aboriginal people have always worked since the beginning of colonisation in 1788. They have ongoing and complex work histories. At the same time, they have never been industrial citizens. This is clear from their marginalisation from the system of occupational health and safety. Their employment tends to be located in two distinct labour markets:  in human service work in the primary labour market with regulated conditions, and unskilled labour in primary and secondary industries, sometimes with liveable wages but mostly casual.  One of the first studies of Aboriginal or Indigenous people in modernist work roles in South Australia with a focus on liaison workers is provided here. The study uses the concepts of emotional labour, obligatory community labour, cultural borderlands and emotional exhaustion. The occupational health and safety profile of the jobs forms the context. The Aboriginal community constables and police had the highest risk to their health from racism with Aboriginal education workers the next.  Aboriginal managers had the most dangerous levels of emotional exhaustion followed by Indigenous health workers. Aboriginal education workers and those in the criminal justice system had the worst overall health.


Maintaining their integrity as a distinct people who have survived the ruins of colonialism, Australian Aboriginal workers and managers straddle a cultural borderland which was not of their making, but from which they have continued pre-colonial ways while forging new Aboriginal cultures and identities.


Aboriginal workers and managers is the first, full-length study of its kind of Aboriginal employment in South Australia and one of the very few yet published for Australia as a whole. It is based on the testimony of 133 Aboriginal men and women.


The voices of Aboriginal people show the many-sided aspects of Aboriginal working lives such as dealing with day-to-day racism in workplaces, the pattern of occupational illness and injuries, and the extent of emotional exhaustion in human service work. The concepts ‘emotional labour’ and ‘obligatory community labour’ help explain how they handle work, family and community commitments in Aboriginal circles themselves, and in wider Australian society.


Aboriginal workers and managers is a valuable and pertinent study for everyone concerned about relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in workplaces and in the broader community today. It will be relevant to Aboriginal organizations, policy makers, employers, the health industry, education, the police, the criminal justice system, Aboriginal/indigenous Studies, Australian, Studies, Sociology, and occupational health and safety.

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Aboriginal Workers and Managers: History, Emotional and Community Labour and Occupational Health and Safety in South Australia

Price: $25.00 (AUD) + postage & handling

ISBN: 1740082443

Pages: 186  Year: 2003

Excerpt from Chapter 3  from ABORIGINAL WORKERS AND MANAGERS, HISTORY, EMOTIONAL AND COMMUNITY LABOUR AND OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA (2003) Claire Williams, Bill Thorpe with Carolyn Chapman, Seaview Press: Adelaide, further details at end of chapter.


Aboriginal Health Workers, Emotional Labour, and Obligatory

Community Labour


The health encompasses all in the Aboriginal life.

I give all of myself.  (Aboriginal woman, health worker, Adelaide)


Injuring yourself at work (brickies’ labourer) was a hazard, bricks falling on you.

Here it’s abuse from the community and lack of sleep from being overworked.

(Aboriginal man, manager in the health area, Adelaide)




The present chapter is concerned specifically with South Australian Aboriginal primary health care workers who can be health workers in communities, liaison workers in hospitals, members of health teams in health centres, and those dealing with Aboriginal people facing alcohol and substance misuse issues. Of the total sample of 133, 29 were primary health care workers (22%) and, in addition, there were 5 Aboriginal managers and team leaders who worked closely with them, and 2 project officers in the sobriety area.  Of the 29 health workers, 13 (43%) were men and 16 (55%) were women.


Various commentators had suggested that Aboriginal Health Workers (AHWs) were an ‘at risk’ group in OHS terms.  For example Trompf (1995) had provided examples where they could be placed in situations of immense strain.   They could relate to, and be responsible for, all Aboriginal people.  They could be required to do what was mental health work but it was difficult for them to look after themselves as workers.  Aboriginal health workers themselves and those working with them have characterised the occupation in terms of high levels of burnout, absenteeism, chronic illnesses associated with stress, and early exits from their careers (Flick, 1995;  Winsor, 2001).  Winsor, an Indigenous patient support officer, points out that AHWs are ‘caught in a vice’, devalued by other health care professionals, and their own communities, and she goes as far as to describe this experience as constituting ‘horizontal violence’, that is, a type of bullying which includes racial prejudice.


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