NAIDOC Week: Continuing the fight with Matthew Abrahamson

Continuing the fight with Matthew Abrahamson 

In 2019, CPSU/CPSA President, Delegate and then YUA Cultural & Ceremonial Leave Champion, Matthew Abrahamson was part of the bargaining team that negotiated and won 5 days paid cultural and ceremonial leave for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) members. Two years on, we caught up with Matthew to reflect on that experience, how cultural and ceremonial leave has since been adopted across the sector, and what’s next for Your Union Agreement.

How did the initial push for paid cultural and ceremonial leave for ATSI members come together?

Through the Union’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Group, we managed to capture the experiences of a number of members. It was not surprising to learn that we had many Members affected in a number of agencies, so we had to take action.

In 2017, I was a Vice President of our union and a member of the Your Union Agreement bargaining team. We brought issues that affected our Aboriginal members to the bargaining table and sought better provisions around cultural and ceremonial leave. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful.

Whilst the issues in the workplace continued, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Group demanded we do better.

In 2019, we, again, brought the issue to the Your Union Agreement bargaining table. We illustrated the issues faced by our members across the sector and highlighted the knowledge and value our members bring to the workforce.

We also highlighted the dilemma that our members face, and that is — if a member is faced with a decision to uphold their cultural obligations or show loyalty to their employer, the employer would not win. The sector would be worse off through losing its skilled and knowledgeable Aboriginal workforce and failure to meet its Aboriginal employment targets.

What has been your experience or observations now that paid cultural and ceremonial leave has been introduced across the public sector?

As an Aboriginal person and delegate in our union, many Aboriginal members turn to me for advice about taking leave for funerals and other cultural and ceremonial events.

The experience from our members was that whilst managers would, quite fairly, question the circumstances of each case, members were feeling increasingly threatened in exercising their rights to access entitlements contained in our agreement and award.

Our members faced a dilemma – abrogate their cultural obligations or demonstrate ‘loyalty’ to their employer.

The state government and individual agencies set targets for the percentage of their workforce who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Islander; yet the lack of cultural competency within agencies only serves to drive our members out of the sector to work in areas that are more sympathetic to the experiences that Aboriginal people face, and where Aboriginal people have an active role in providing services to address the needs of their people.

Knowing that our agreement and award contained provisions for bereavement leave and cultural and ceremonial leave, I felt it was important to ensure that our members’ interests were protected and to ensure that our members did not experience guilt in fulfilling their cultural obligations, brought about by pressure from their employer.

What are your hopes for the next round of agreement negotiations and beyond?

Whilst we won the right to 5 days per year of paid cultural leave for Aboriginal people, it is topical, given this year’s NAIDOC theme – Heal Country! – to continue the fight.

This year’s NAIDOC theme calls for all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.

That the state government chooses to fail to recognise our members’ participation in native title matters using paid cultural leave for Aboriginal people, we must, again, fight for better.

This time around, though, our fight will be part of a bigger fight – as part of multiple public sector unions’ fight to break the current Wages Policy, which has seen us experience low wage growth for 5 years.

Enough is enough; as the current President of our Union, I am asking for us all to come together to fight for better outcomes for all public servants!

Related: 3 ways you can help in NAIDOC’s call to Heal Country