Government red tape is killing Indigenous jobs hope

Overseas workers get jobs while our youth get the dole

Darren Coyne | Koori Mail | 19th August 2009

Click for larger image and descriptionYoung Indigenous men from remote communities appear to be getting a bum steer from the Australian government. Instead of receiving promised jobs and training in the meat-processing industry, they are being left to sit about on welfare while overseas workers have been streaming into the country on fast-tracked visas.

In Queensland alone more than 430 meatworkers have arrived from overseas since July last year. And another 30 or so arrived in South Australia, according to Immigration Department figures. All the while, a home-grown scheme called Boys from the Bush Projects – Remote Area Work Scheme (RAWS) has been battling with bureaucracy to gain support.

The scheme began in Cape York as a pilot in 2005 and helped place more than 150 young men, initially in horticulture, then in the meat-processing industry.

Sixteen months ago, the project team, which is a mix of Indigenous and non-indigenous people, decided to expand nationally. Excited by the pilot's results, and with abattoirs seemingly keen, scheme team members hoped to gain much-needed support from the Federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR).

The team believed their track record of successfully placing young men in the industry would appeal to a federal government making a lot of noise about improving job prospects for disadvantaged Indigenous people.

Lorraine Watson, an Elder involved with the program who lives in the Hervey Bay area of Queensland, told The Koori Mail newspaper that red tape was killing something which had the potential to help many young people find employment.

"We've been battling for 16 months to get the department and the abattoirs to back this program," she said. "During this time we've approached a number of abattoirs and been given offers of work, only to have them change their mind because it was taking too long.

"DEEWR has been fast-tracking visas for overseas workers while our boys are sitting out there in communities waiting for someone to come and get them. It's so hard to tell these young people that the promised jobs are no longer there.

"The majority of them are from the Northern Territory and Cape York and the Kimberley area and they've never been out of community, never had a decent education, or been to a big city. We bring them out with the permission of their parents, there are agreements signed, and we bring them out and put them in a house and drive them to work and pick them up.

"The boys love it. Some get homesick, but we encourage them to buy a mobile phone so they can stay in touch with their parents and relatives."

Ms Watson said she was sick of people stereotyping young Aboriginal people.

"There's no reason to say that Aboriginal people don't want to work," she said. "These are wonderful kids and it breaks my heart to think of these boys in remote areas who want to work. They don't want to live there for their whole lives. They want to get out and see the world like anyone else.

"That's why it's so hard to tell them there's no work because we get them all psyched up and ready to go and then the abattoirs will decide to pull out at the last minute because they've got overseas workers.

"You end up losing credibility because you sit down with parents, but then you don't go back because it has fallen through."

Leonard Peter, from Boigu Island in the Torres Strait, spent almost 12 months working at a meatworks in Victoria as part of program. "I'd love to do it again, but I'm still waiting to hear about more work," he said.

"I've applied for a job in Atherton but haven't heard anything. So me and my cousin are thinking about driving down to South Australia in September to find some work. It's good experience (the program). Those people have really helped us."

Boys from the Bush Project Director Milton James said there were plenty of keen young men like Leonard waiting and willing to work. He said he was becoming disillusioned with the red tape strangling the program's potential.

He likened it to the exploitative treatment of Indigenous workers in the early days of the meat industry.

"Look at history. There's a lot of repetition going on here. They carried this industry from the very beginning yet they were grossly exploited. The same exploitation is happening now but in a different way."

Mr James said 16 months ago he had given an assurance to the meat industry and DEEWR that the program could place more than 100 young Indigenous men in jobs straight away.

All it needed, he said, was a bit of government support to cover the cost of recruitment, and the after-work support and supervision. He said it was disappointing that he had applied for funding more than 16 months ago and none had materialised – yet overseas workers were being fast-tracked with visas every month.

"They (DEEWR) have got an entire team of four people working full-time processing applications from abattoirs," he told The Koori Mail. "Those applications range from 10 to 100 workers and they've got a requirement for a one-month turnaround from the time it's submitted.

"When I submit an application for black kids 16 months has gone by and still no action. The whole playing field is skewed against these kids."

When Mr James first spoke with The Koori Mail he had just heard from another two abattoirs, which had previously agreed to take Aboriginal workers, but had since changed their minds. "What they're saying is that they've been told by DEEWR that if they take young people from me there will be no wage subsidies," he said.

In a letter to federal Immigration Minister Chris Evans late last week, Mr James accused the Department of institutionalised racism.

Meanwhile, Labor MP Jim Turnour, whose electorate of Leichhardt covers an area of 150,366 square kilometres which stretches from the Papua New Guinea border through Cape York Peninsula to the southern suburbs of Cairns, said he was concerned the Boys from the Bush projects were being ignored.

"I've got real concerns if Aboriginal people are not being able to get jobs because meatworks are using foreign labour through the visa scheme," he told The Koori Mail.

"I am raising these concerns with (Immigration) Minister Chris Evans and asking him to investigate the issue of meatworks using foreign labour in preference to Aboriginal people."

The Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations did not respond to a question from The Koori Mail about whether foreign workers were being given preference over Aboriginal young people. The department maintained, however, that it was working with the Boys from the Bush team to develop the proposal.

"Over the past 16 months, Mr James has approached the department with proposals for a range of projects with different employers in the meat-processing industry to assist young Indigenous men from remote communities," the department said. "The department has been working very closely with the employers and Mr James to develop these proposals.

"Through the Indigenous Employment Program, the department already supports a similar successful project. Mission Australia, in collaboration with Cape York Partnerships, runs the Mission Australia Work Placement Scheme which to date has supported 48 young Indigenous Australians from Cape York in Queensland into meat-processing jobs in Victoria."

But for Mr James, the response is inadequate, and he remains highly critical of what he says are protracted delays by DEEWR to provide even modest funding to the scheme.

In a recent letter to the department, he was scathing.

"It makes a mockery of the Australian government's clearly defined stance on closing the unemployment gap for Aboriginal people," he said. "New regulations now see boners and slicers identified as skilled workers under the visa process. Nearly all the young people placed into abattoirs by us were given the job of boning and slicing.

"These are tasks that can be mastered by these young people within a few weeks. This is exactly what some meat processors and overseas recruitment companies are doing.

"They are going to places like China and South Korea to run short training courses and then bringing these people into Australia as skilled and unskilled labourers. These same meat-processing companies could pay an even smaller proportion of this money by travelling to remote communities in Australia to run short training courses for young Aborigines."

According to an Institute of Public Affairs report in 2008, the total costs of recruiting and bringing in each overseas worker on a 457 visa ranged from $17,000 up to $30,000.

Can't understand

Mr James can't understand why that type of money is not being invested in young Indigenous people. "To bring in overseas worker can cost up to $30,000 and when their visa expires they return to their country," he said.

"For an Aboriginal person, it costs $17,000 for our 12-month program – to recruit, prepare, relocate and provide them with after-work support and supervision – but that's a one-off payment, because the skills stay in the country and their savings are spent here too," he said. "This is a life-time investment, not a short-term fix like the 457 visas (for foreign workers)," he said.

Mr James said he calculated the various government costs associated with keeping a young Indigenous welfare-dependent person in a community at $26,972 a year. The Koori Mail asked whether DEEWR was at all concerned that there were more than 100 young Indigenous men waiting and willing to work, while the Australian government was bringing in foreign workers?

Mr James, and those young people, are still waiting for an answer.

* At the time of going to press, Mr James was in negotiations with a meat-processing company willing to take all the Indigenous workers, but the deal remained subject to DEEWR support.