Plenty of work still to be done helping indigenous find jobs

Ben Schneiders | The Age | September 5th, 2009

If Australia's unemployment rate was as high as that of indigenous people it would be regarded as another Great Depression. Yet the indigenous rate is not widely known and infrequently measured.

Indigenous pay, participation rates and skill levels are all far lower than in the rest of the workforce.

Despite improvements between 2001 and 2006, the overall indigenous unemployment rate remains at about 16 per cent. And if work-for-the-dole programs were excluded it would be about double that, experts say.

Indigenous leader Peter Yu said long-term thinking was required and the private sector was crucial. ''I suspect we don't want all our mob becoming public servants; we want people to stand up on their own feet,'' he said.

An array of issues had affected employment including racism, education and lack of basic services, while many people did not have the skills and attitudes to be ready for work, he said. Cultural, ritual and family obligations also caused problems when they collided with inflexible workplaces.

Mr Yu, former head of the Kimberley Land Council, was critical of the Australian Employment Covenant, the scheme inspired by mining magnate Andrew Forrest to try to employ 50,000 indigenous people in the coming years, saying ''grandiose statements'' can do a lot more damage than good when the key is building solid foundations.

Covenant chief executive Mal James denied the target was too ambitious. But while the covenant has more than 13,000 ''commitments'' from employers to hire indigenous staff, only about 200 people had actually started work in the year since it was announced.

But there were some signs of improvement in the years before the Forrest scheme.

The private sector added nearly 12,000 indigenous employees between 2001 and 2006, an analysis by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University shows.

This week the Rio Tinto-controlled Energy Resources of Australia flew The Age to its Ranger uranium mine to highlight that the company now employs more than 100 indigenous staff - making up about 20 per cent of its workforce.

The approach of ERA, the company concedes, is far more sophisticated than it was a decade ago, with flexibility provided for indigenous staff but with the same tough approach for all staff on alcohol and drug use and safety and work standards.

It is one of the private sector's success stories, although relations are strained with the local Mirrar people, who oppose ERA's activities and any mining of its nearby Jabiluka deposit.

Rio Tinto is credited with driving much of the change in an industry that often held hostile or racist views towards indigenous people.

Chief executive Rob Atkinson would not be drawn on the other less tangible benefits of engagement - such as whether its approach improves its chances of expanding its mining interests - but was emphatic the indigenous jobs focus was important to the business.

One of ERA's longest serving staff, Darryl Tambling, who also mentors indigenous staff at the company, said few Aborigines were employed when he started 20 years ago. Mr Tambling, an uncle to AFL footballer Richard, said the work gave him ''a sense of pride''.

But ANU academic John Taylor said there was a risk that indigenous unemployment could skyrocket in the coming years with the recession leading to more lay-offs. Recently hired indigenous staff would be vulnerable.

The indigenous work-for-the-dole scheme - which in 2006 employed about 34,000 people - is being phased out and that could lead to many of those people becoming unemployed, Mr Taylor said. That could more than double the official level of unemployment of about 27,000.

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