Indigenous Employment and Labour shortages in Mining

When I presented this paper at the 2005 Minerals Council Of Australia Global Sustainability Conference, my assertion that a “qualitative framework”  be introduced to benchmark community relations practice in the Mining Industry was met with a dismissive lack of interest. Perhaps if there was an uptake of such a framework back then the recent serious breaches of trust and destruction of heritage assets may well have been avoided


With the current period of growth in the resources sector likely to continue for several years, the competition for a limited supply of labour has seen industry and peak bodies’ alike focus on solutions. Strategies emerging from the debate have identified opportunities as diverse as migration schemes through to “understanding the needs of generation Y”. Whilst these and other strategies will continue to provide short and medium-term solutions, the debate appears against the backdrop of rural and remote Australia, where a majority of Indigenous Australians are denied the opportunity of economic participation through paid employment. This document summarises some of the issues and perceived barriers to Indigenous participation in the resources sector.

External Influences:

  • National unemployment rate in Australia is approaching 5%, the rate for Indigenous people remains around 20%, when Community Development Employment (CDEP) participants are included; the rate is closer to 40%. This does not include persons on sole parent, carer and other pensions who may otherwise seek employment in more equitable circumstances. Whilst health, infrastructure, education and other complex issues continue to have a disparate effect on the lives of Indigenous people particularly in remote communities, it is widely recognised that economic participation has a dramatic impact;

“Having a job or being involved in a business activity not only leads to improved outcomes for families and communities (which has a positive influence on health, education, children etc,) it also enhances self esteem and reduces social alienation”

(Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: 2003)

  • Since the Global Mining Initiative embraced sustainability as the way forward for the resources sector, the Australian mining industry has been at the forefront of the sustainable development. “Enduring Value” – first launched by the MCA in 04 sets the benchmark for industry standards in Social, Economic and Environmental performance and reporting. This performance is under scrutiny by stakeholders who expect:

-Company’s behaviours must match their values
-Transparency in all aspects of operations
-Demonstrable social responsibility performance

  • Increased economic activity among Indigenous people globally is seeing a new wave of economic participation that recognises the value of social capital and global communication.
  • Native Title has for the first time, given Indigenous people a position from which to negotiate. Industry engagement is no longer passive, communities want real economic participation.



The current Australian Indigenous population is 458500 and expected to rise to 528600 by 2009. Significantly, this group contains up to 200,000 young people below the age of 25. Over the next decade, a sustained and dramatic rise in the number of working-age young people will occur. Nationally the Indigenous working-age population is increasing at more than twice the rate of the overall working-age population. Of this 200,000 indigenous young people, if 10% sought employment opportunities in Mining that would see an additional 20,000 people available to the sector. Current figures show the National participation rates of Indigenous people in Mining to be less than 3000 people. (abare 03.19)

  • By virtue of the locations in which it operates, the mining industry is well placed to benefit from a “new wave of opportunity” by engaging with this large potential workforce, in turn mobilising economic participation & social capital in rural and remote Australia. With strong economic growth, labour shortages and an ageing workforce, mining has the opportunity to be a catalyst for Indigenous economic participation and capacity building supporting intergenerational change.



  • Entry-level skills required:

– Basic literacy and numeracy: Ability to navigate safety systems

– Willingness and ability to learn: A strong desire to participate can be nurtured by catering for learning styles

– Ability to get on well with others: Living and working in mining environs

– Management of work and cultural obligations: This is a two-way process, employees require the support of family and  community – workplace agreements can be tailored to cater for employee family and cultural obligations

  • Beyond establishing baseline skills pre-requisite, the majority of level one roles within Mining including haul truck operation can be carried out successfully by individuals with little or no previous experience following training.
  • This continues to be demonstrated off-shore in areas such as South East Asia where Australian companies employ and train local non-English speaking people whose previous exposure to technology has been minimal. The Australian experience differs radically to what is being achieved off-shore, the most apparent difference being the methodology, systems and process prerequisites required to access employment.


Recruitment systems:

  • We often hear the saying “our recruitment system is fair, it doesn’t matter what your background is – anyone can see the add and apply for the position” this, of course, fails to address the fundamental issue that people are commencing from different positions.
  • Gender, race, education, remoteness and access to technology are just some of the barriers which in effect marginalise people by degree. HR systems impose layers of complexity, and whilst providing an efficient framework for organisations to manage human resources, are fundamentally inadequate to cater for diversity. HR process does not make allowances for:

-Communication styles

  • The result of failure to navigate these systems is a manifested negative perception and cultural biased against Indigenous people. Psychometric testing is one example of an oft-used tool which compares subjects with American males and has been proven to demonstrate that “ test results are significantly biased in favour of the western, middle class, schooled individuals – the normative populations for most psychological tests being Caucasian Americans” (Jones; Williams 1991).
  • Systemic recruitment practices are biased towards identifying experienced people for all roles, including entry-level roles. This may further entrench the perception that all indigenous people require pre-vocational training. The danger with this approach is that Indigenous recruitment strategies become solely targeted at a pre-vocational level and do not tap the potential of people who are job-ready or employed in government and community sectors for want of alternative career opportunities.
  • On-line applications, automated employee recruitment management systems and unnecessarily complex application forms present additional hurdles. Whilst these systems are accepted and well established as effective business tools, recognising their inability to cater for diversity calls for a new set of competencies. Methodologies applied to Indigenous employment must apply to the needs of both the business and the client to create a “culturally appropriate” win-win process.
  • ‘Examples of successful Indigenous employment strategies implemented in Mining share common themes:

-Sound relationships
-Visible entry points for communication
-Assessment tools that cater for different learning styles
-Training that leads to “real jobs”
-Strong mandate from senior management
-Passionate individuals on the ground

  • These common themes form a “qualitative framework” – under which, individuals are typically supported through the recruitment process by one person through a face to face relationship.
  • Relationships between Indigenous communities and Mining companies are typified by peaks and troughs. Relationships are largely driven by individuals and over time as people come and go, so do the relationships experience highs and lows. A “qualitative framework” can be made systemic in the same way that standards such as ISO 14001 drive consistency in environmental performance. This approach can provide a framework for engagement with Indigenous communities and individuals, underpinned by standards of professional practice which form part of the skills set required by professionals in the modern mining industry, from senior management through to community relations and HR practitioners. “Alternative” Indigenous employment strategies can address the inadequacies of mainstream recruitment methodology. Mainstream HR practice will cater for diversity when “alternative” strategies are accepted as normal practice. Similarly, this process cannot occur in isolation and must be seen as an “all of business strategy”.


“All of business” strategy model:


-Visible and felt entry point to business
-Applicants case – managed
-HR acting as “enablers” – building the capacity of FLM
-Assessment – culturally appropriate


-Educated in cultural diversity
-Involved in the process
-Identify and build “champions” within the workforce


-Included in dialogue
-Clear entry points/communication
-Agreed framework for consistency of relationships

Government & NGO’s:

-Working in partnership
-Strategies supporting the robust regional economy
-Coordination of services
-Share risk/obligation

Line Management/business units:

-Strong mandate from Senior Management
-Visible and felt leadership
-Targets linked to performance incentives
-Recognition of the need for specific competencies to manage diversity

  • This approach is typified by roles and responsibilities based on the principles that catering for diversity is both a way of doing business and an “all of business” strategy. Introducing this change process into a business requires a staged approach as outlined in the model (below). It is a process of change impacting on the whole business, and workforce culture must be developed in conjunction with internal and external stakeholder capacity and relationship building.
  • At an industry level, Mining has already demonstrated a clear commitment towards addressing the disparity of access to employment by Indigenous people. The recent launch of an MOU between the Commonwealth and MCA is a significant step forward in recognising the role, not only of Industry, but of government and community in establishing coordination of services supporting employment and sustainable regional economic development.

With labour shortages and an ageing workforce, the Mining industry is well placed to benefit. Actions undertaken now can shape the future. Not only in supporting the social and economic aspirations of indigenous people but in how industry aspirations to mine and explore the land and sea resources will be treated by the present and future generations of Indigenous community leaders.


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