Extra pay for indigenous staff recognises ‘cultural workload’

Substantial allowance ‘fair recompense’ for extra expectations on Aboriginal employees, Murdoch says

April 25, 2024
Indigenous Australian performers hold a smoking ceremony
Source: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

Aboriginal staff at an Australian university will be paid for the extra work that comes with their indigenous background, in what is being hailed as a first for the sector.

Murdoch University has introduced a “cultural workload allowance” of up to A$8,944 (£4,656) a year for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees who “voluntarily and formally” assume cultural responsibilities “in addition to their substantive duties”.

The allowance, enshrined in the university’s renegotiated enterprise agreement, roughly equates to an extra 10 per cent of an associate lecturer’s salary.

Chanelle van den Berg, pro vice-chancellor for First Nations at Murdoch, said indigenous staff were often sought out for cultural guidance and consultation. “It’s only fair that they get recognised and compensated,” said Dr van den Berg, whose grandmother Rosemary was the first Aboriginal Western Australian to obtain a PhD.

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“[Murdoch’s] aim is to become…a leader in embracing, promoting and benefiting from indigenous knowledges and cultural inclusivity. Recognising cultural load is one of the commitments we are making [towards] achieving this goal.”

The extra work can include giving colleagues cultural or linguistic advice, organising reconciliation events, representing the university at community meetings and participating in “welcome to country” observances, smoking ceremonies and dance and storytelling performances.

Indigenous staff’s advice can prove crucial to research in areas such as conservation, archaeology, health and social development, where input from Aboriginal communities is paramount. Murdoch vice-chancellor Andrew Deeks said the contribution was highly valued.

“This new allowance simply seeks to formalise that recognition and set a precedent for how cultural load is considered within the workplace, especially in settings where there are few First Nations employees,” he said.

Other Australian universities recognise the issue in staff’s workload allocations, but this often only applies to cultural work required by the institutions. The University of Canberra’s enterprise agreement extends this to cultural work that indigenous staff perform voluntarily, while some universities pay overtime for cultural contributions.

La Trobe University’s new enterprise agreement allows for an indigenous salary loading of A$5,000, along with a 5 per cent addition to indigenous academics’ service allocations.

In New Zealand, some universities recognise Māori cultural and linguistic expertise in staff’s salary reviews and promotion policies. Canterbury, Otago and Waikato universities offer “financial recognition” of their Māori employees’ additional cultural efforts.

At Massey University, this recognition comes in the form of annual one-off payments of between NZ$1,000 (£477) and NZ$3,000, and is available to both Māori and non-Māori staff.

New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Union hopes to “standardise” each institution’s treatment of cultural load in negotiations towards new collective agreements this year, according to Te Awatea Ward, co-branch president of the union’s Massey branch. She said Māori staff often devoted 10 to 15 per cent of their time on the job to cultural work, irrespective of whether it lay in their job descriptions.

While many Australian enterprise agreements stress that indigenous staff cannot be obliged to perform cultural work, Ms Ward said it could be hard to avoid in New Zealand. Expectations ranged from “subtle” corrections of pronunciation to explanations of Māori mores like a taboo against sitting on tables – a customary “health and safety mechanism”, she said.

“You’ve got to explain it in a way that’s acceptable to that person’s culture without putting them down, because it’s not a battle,” she said. “It’s about education and sharing that knowledge.”


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