People who reject the idea of quotas for Indigenous staff are failing to grasp the effect that entrenched unemployment has on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
Employment targets matter to organisations, to the wider community, and most of all, they matter to the people whose lives have been transformed by having a job.
It’s been illegal to hire or fire on the basis of race for 25 years in Australia. The Racial Discrimination Act aims to ensure Australians of all backgrounds are treated equally and have the same opportunities. Yet unemployment among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 16% in 2011.
With high unemployment comes a whole raft of other problems: social and economic hardship, and a range of health issues that entrench Indigenous disadvantage.
This is happening at a time when Australia – one of the world’s wealthiest countries – is experiencing a widening gap between rich and poor, the employed and the unemployed.
In a paper published by the Australia Institute last year, David Richardson and Richard Denniss noted that those at the bottom end of the wealth scale – the minimum wage earners and the unemployed – receive income or benefits that are failing to keep pace with the rise in average earnings, resulting in a divergence between low-income earners and the average employed Australians.
That’s why individual companies setting targets for Indigenous employment is so important. As part of Naidoc week celebrations, Red Cross launched its second Reconciliation Action Plan on Thursday, which includes a plan to increase Indigenous staff from 6.3% (as at April 2015) to 9% in 2018. Targets are set right across the organisation, from board and senior management to case and community workers on the ground, and to aid workers that we send overseas. We also aim to increase Indigenous volunteers around the country.
In my own family and my wider mob I have seen over and over again how having a job has transformed lives.
As a young Murri woman, I was unsure of what I wanted to do when I left school. I started out doing a secretarial course at Tafe, as there were few opportunities in my small home town, when a local employer saw my potential, recognised my desire to work and offered me a job. I have no idea where I would be now if that meeting had not taken place and that woman had not gone out of her comfort zone to take me on.
I went on to complete a bachelor of business in human resources, a diploma in education, a master’s in international sports management and a graduate diploma in international development. I have travelled the world, worked in some amazing locations, and am now working for Red Cross, which pays me to hire, mentor and develop more Indigenous staff. It was all because someone took a risk, saw my potential and gave me a go.
I continue to see the ripple effect of that act. A few years ago, I was in a newsagency in Lismore, New South Wales, when a young Aboriginal woman recognised me as the person who had placed her in her first job. That young woman was grateful for the opportunity, thankful that someone believed in her and had been supportive of her endeavours to find meaningful work. That first job had transformed her life and she was still working many years after completing her traineeship.
It’s one thing to set targets and another to achieve them. That’s why cultural competence training is also important to corporations willing to make a change. Understanding another culture can lead to an improved willingness to engage by reducing fear of “the other”. But in order to find that productive ground where two cultures can work well together you also need to deeply understand your own values and beliefs. Good cultural competence training exposes people to look at their own world views in order to understand others’.
Increased employment of Indigenous people involves changing both the supply (the availability and willingness of people to work) and demand (whether they can find employment). Organisations can go a long way to fixing the demand side by setting targets. Targets confront people’s own mindsets and biases, such as those encountered in a 1999 survey of CEOs, which found that “CEOs, on average, perceived that Indigenous workers have lower levels of skill and commitment to the job and higher rates of absenteeism”.
It is commonly said in the diversity arena that “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Real change in Indigenous employment outcomes won’t be realised until companies make a genuine commitment to empowering Indigenous staff. Too often in the past, Indigenous leadership appointments have been merely tokenistic and Indigenous Australians in prominent positions have been silenced by their non–Indigenous managers. It is only when this practice ends that our future Indigenous leaders will see a true place for themselves in corporate Australia.
While Australians generally agree with the concepts of equal opportunity and support the unlawfulness of racial discrimination, this clearly has not been enough to end the underemployment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Until governments and organisations – large and small – have the will to set concrete goals, the practices of the past will not be disrupted.