How we can prevent Indigenous women from retiring into poverty

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this article contains the names of people who have passed away

National Tertiary Education Union member and Guyinbaraay woman Dr Maree Gruppetta worked and campaigned in Australian universities. She was a driven activist who strongly advocated on union and Aboriginal matters.  

Maree began her superannuation contributions when she was in her 40s. But when Maree had to undergo five years of cancer treatment – working all the while – she had sparse superannuation funds to cover her health treatment. 

She relied on an insurance policy to cover the bills and to leave a legacy for her children and grandchildren.  

Despite her serious illness, Maree maintained her strong standards and union membership, inspiring those who worked with her. She passed away in 2019 aged 55.  

Maree is just one of hundreds of thousands of stories that show the cruel consequences of the gender and Indigenous superannuation gaps. But there is no reason why we can’t change these entrenched inequalities in our retirement system.  

The Indigenous superannuation gap

Decades of systemic exclusion from fair wages and the ability to accumulate property, systemic and pervasive racism combined with cynical and discriminatory Government policy has left Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with less means to accumulate superannuation than the general population.  

We can see the devastating impacts of this colonial history in the average figures for superannuation balances.  

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders men have an average balance of $55,743 compared to $110,000 for non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men. 

We already know all working women face a gender superannuation gap. But for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, this gendered discrimination is compounded with racial discrimination to result in an even worse superannuation gap. 

The compounding discriminatory factors can be seen in the balances for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Their average super balance is $39,909 compared to $63,000 for non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.  

The lack of intergenerational wealth has not been factored into the superannuation system’s design which relies on the assumption of home ownership in its calculations for what forms a decent retirement.   

This inequality faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers has been compounded in other ways too. First Nations people have also been required to work with fewer rights than non-Indigenous workers, for example through the former Government’s racist Community Development Programme (CDP).  

The CDP targeted exclusively Indigenous areas, forced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to work for the dole or face significant penalties to their dole payments.  

The work that was often done in unsafe conditions, workers were not protected by work health and safety programmes or insurance, and superannuation was not paid on top of wages earned.  

But thanks to the campaigning of the First Nations Workers Alliance, we can expect to see the CDP replaced soon, as promised by the Albanese Government. 

A dignified retirement for all

The Australian union movement has a fundamental goal that no worker should retire into poverty and instead should be entitled to a dignified retirement. 

We need to address both the gender and Indigenous superannuation gap is to disrupt a system which, thus far, has perpetuated inequality stemming from dispossession and colonisation.  

For starters, the preservation age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers needs to be lowered as it has been set too high to be fair. Indigenous workers should not suffer while we close the life-expectancy gap, and they should be the ones to determine how they participate in the retirement income system. 

We also need to reduce the documentation load required to prove kinship and require retirement-related services to provide information in-language where possible.  

Already, the union movement has taken huge steps in reducing superannuation inequality. Union members led a hard-fought, hard-won campaign that resulted in the abolition of the $450 per month earning threshold for compulsory superannuation. 

The removal of the threshold will benefit around 300,000 low-paid workers, around two-thirds of which are women.  

Women in unions also face a far smaller gender pay gap. The median male non-member earns $2.70 more per hour than his female equivalent, but for union members, this difference is only $1.00. Overall, women union members earn 32% more per week than women non-members. 

Union members won’t rest until there is equality for all, and that means ensuring fair wages and decent retirement.   

Through the First Nations Workers’ Alliance (FNWA), union members continue to fight for fair wages and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers.   

FNWA is culturally safe for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers wanting to learn about unions and who want to join their industry union.   

All union members can join the Alliance. If you’re not yet a member of a union, now is the best time to join. 

We stand up for workers’ rights together