There are benefits for Australian companies in developing good relations with indigenous communities, and cultural sensitivity is vital

For many global businesses, employee diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities in the work place are near the top of the priority list for good governance and to add value. In Australia, there is a particular focus upon the provision of employment, training and development opportunities for indigenous peoples.

It is clear that the private sector has a large part to play in encouraging indigenous employment. All Australian companies must have a statement on working with indigenous Australians, or an indigenous employment strategy.

Many companies, a prime example being Australia Post, also employ indigenous employment managers and consultants. There are ample job sites with jobs advertised by companies specifically looking for indigenous employees, with help from not-for-profits such as the Aboriginal Employment Strategy.

Despite these efforts, big disparities remain between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Rich culture

Today, indigenous Australians make up 2.4% of the total Australian population – making up about 460,000 out of 22 million people. The indigenous cultures of Australia are the oldest living cultural history in the world and are extremely diverse. The term “indigenous Australians” is inclusive of the original inhabitants (or ‘original owners’) of Australia and its nearby islands, as well as the Torres Strait Islanders, who reside nearer Papua New Guinea.

All indigenous Australians were once semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers yet now dwell both in remote community areas and urban areas. Both groups have adverse ratings compared with non-indigenous populations for social indicators such as unemployment, poverty, crime, education, health and longevity.

Jacqueline Minney is the director of consultancy Opportunities Without Boundaries (OWB), Aboriginal affairs specialists based in Perth. With a 17-year career history in Australia’s mining sector, Minney is well aware of opportunities that such companies can present to indigenous communities.

As a Yamatji Malgana woman from Western Australia, Minney has also experienced the difficulties that can occur, particularly in her role as a spokesperson and mediator between employers and Aboriginal employees. She is proud that with the exception of one contractor, every OWB employee has been Aboriginal.

With experience in strategic consultancy, corporate tendering, community human resources, training and advocacy, Minney argues that indigenous population issues occur due to a lack of mutual understanding. She believes that increased cultural awareness, communication and engagement is needed. Nevertheless, developing effective company executive-level cultural awareness goes much deeper than just increasing cultural diversity within a company.

Government approach

Australia’s government has approached indigenous employment issues in a number of ways. Many schemes are run by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, for example, that offer traineeships to young indigenous Australians living in remote areas.

Being identified by an employer as being from within the broader Aboriginal community can, unfortunately, still be detrimental to that person’s employment opportunities. Traditionally indigenous Australians maintain close ties with their extended family. Where there is little employment among the indigenous community, an individual in employment can feel obliged to share his or her wages with extended family members, which can include neighbours and others who are not actually related (by blood or marriage). In some instances this can act as a disincentive to for people to take paid employment rather than rely on state benefits.

Education and development is needed for both employers and the local populations to create sustainable social change. For example, OWB offers a Working With Aboriginal People course to address misunderstandings.

Businesses can benefit from showing proper cultural understanding. For the mining and extractive sector in particular, it is important that companies appreciate how a strong connection to the land is fundamental to the wellbeing and spirituality of Aboriginal people.

Community expectations 

Minney says that there have been instances of Aboriginal employees who wanted to work but kept getting sacked. Mining companies accused them of constantly taking time off work. With “walkabout” occurring in December and January each year, there remains a perception in the sector that Aboriginal employees will leave unannounced. As is often the case, it’s not as simple as that.

Walkabout is a spiritual journey taken by many young Aboriginal Australians whereby through wandering in the Australian bush land for a period lasting up to several months, they can connect with their ancestors.

It is important that employers understand that, as a community, indigenous peoples are expected by their communities to attend certain cultural events. Minney has worked with mine managers to help them to see that their Aboriginal employees could be ostracised if they did not attend certain events. A simple solution is to develop a calendar system with the human resources department that shows when some employees need to take time off and how long for.

Mutual benefits

The benefits of employment to an Aboriginal community as a whole stretch far beyond the financial. Employees feel a sense of pride, ownership and there are emotional and health benefits too. There have been huge numbers of suicides within Aboriginal communities, with alcoholism playing a large part. Employment can make a massive positive difference.

The benefits for companies are clear too, Minney argues. There can be great loyalty from Aboriginal employees who realise how being in employment empowers them personally and to help provide for their wider community. Employing Aboriginal people enables a credible and authentic company to improve productivity, employee and community relations and be a leader in connecting with the broader community.

Aboriginal role models are important. Young people need to be inspired before they themselves develop aspiration to lead. For that, more successful Aboriginal professionals need to step forward and communicate their successes to Aboriginal communities.

Rosie Helson is a consultant with Amida Recruitment in Sydney.  

This is the first in a two-part series on indigenous communities employment issues in Australia. The second will examine further the mutual benefits for companies and Aboriginal employees from improving cultural awareness.

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