Indigenous employment in Australian mining: what more needs to be done?

Scarlett Evans 30 October 2019 (Last Updated October 30th, 2019 10:27)

New Century Resources (NCR) has pledged to reach 50% Indigenous employment at its zinc mining operations in Queensland - the largest pledge of its kind seen in the country’s mining sector. Here, Scarlett Evans looks at industry-wide efforts to boost Indigenous integration, and what more needs to be done to ensure that the modern Australian mining sector is inclusive.

Indigenous employment in Australian mining: what more needs to be done?
NCR has committed to employ indigenous people in half of its workforce at its new zinc operation. Credit: NCR

Located on Waanyi traditional land in the Gulf of Carpentaria, NCR’s zinc refinery is set to open for business at the end of 2020. Joining a growing push to support Indigenous employment in mining operations, in August this year the company committed to source 200 of its 400 person workforce from local communities.

A 50:50 joint venture between Waanyi Enterprises and Downer EDI Mining, the Waanyi Downer Joint Venture (WDJV) will allow profits to be split between Downer and the Waanyi traditional owners, and includes a cultural heritage agreement as part of NCR’s compensation arrangement to progress operations.

In a statement, the NCR said the agreement provides a ‘viable mechanism’ to not only acknowledge the value of Indigenous cultural heritage but also to ‘empower’ those traditional owner communities who have mining operations within their lands.

At the signing ceremony, Waanyi PBC Chairman Alec Doomadgee said; “After almost 20 years of mining activity on Waanyi land at the Century Mine, this is the first agreement to genuinely recognise the value and significance of the Waanyi People’s Cultural Heritage and our birthright.”

NCR’s pledge

“The WDJV is…a ground-breaking partnership,” says Ross Browning, Managing Director of the WDJV. “It is unique in Australia – the first equitable 50:50 mining services joint venture formed between the Waanyi PBC and Downer. As well as providing mining-related services to Century Mine, the WDJV has also designed and delivered several training programs for employees and the local community.”

The employment deal follows a 2018 partnership between the NCR and the Waanyi people, which provided training facilities and programs for members of local communities – programs which themselves expanded into skill-training schemes including horsemanship and military courses.

Speaking with NCR Head of Corporate Affairs Shane Goodwin, he says that both the mining agreement and the external programs are instrumental in creating an overall beneficial venture.

“Our engagement with the WDJV in the delivery of training opportunities for communities and through a significant mining services agreement will ensure Local Aboriginal People derive significant benefit and economic opportunity from the ongoing operations at Century,” he says.

It is hoped that the various training programs will help to decrease unemployment rates in Waanyi communities, as well as boost education levels.

“Once New Century Resources gives us ‘the notice to proceed’ we hope to commence and employ close to 200 people under our Mining Service Agreement,” says Doomadgee. “I’ll be strongly pushing for 50% jobs for Aboriginal people in the lower Gulf communities.”

“We then hope to roll into a 20 year rehabilitation contract, which was the original purpose of setting up the Waanyi/Downer Joint Venture,” he adds. “I’m all about healing the country spiritually, culturally, mentally and physically. Rehab has more appeal to me and to Aboriginal’s in general as it’s helping heal our country and stem the flow of bleeding from big companies that set out to destroy Mother Earth. I’m dealing with a broken situation and trying to find the best way forward for my people and my country.”

Indigenous employment in mining operations

Across Australia, around 60% of mining operations are in close proximity to Indigenous communities. While the mining industry has historically employed few traditional land owners, analysis from the Asia and Pacific Policy Studies Centre shows this figure is beginning to rise, with the number of Indigenous people employed by the mining industry more than doubling between 2006 and 2011.

Mining giants such as BHP and Rio Tinto have made a point of making Indigenous inclusion a part of their business model, looking to expand their current target of 20-30% Indigenous staff.  In June this year, Fortescue directly employed 779 people from Aboriginal communities, and has a 15% Indigenous employment rate at its Pilbara sites. Even the controversial Adani mine has promised employment opportunities, with the Indian corporation agreeing to have a minimum of 7% Indigenous workforce and 10% apprenticeships and traineeships to be filled by Indigenous people.

Yet for some, the current efforts are not enough. Members of the Wangan and Jagalingou communities are opposing Adani’s project altogether and are seeking to have an Indigenous Land Use Agreement struck out – saying the operation will destroy sacred sites. Others argue that in previous collaborative efforts, corporations merely paid lip service to equal employment opportunities without the follow-through to ensure community-wide benefits were seen. Indeed, even with all the will in the world, without an effective business model in place integration efforts can go unrewarded.

What else can be done?

Speaking with Richard Brown, CEO of consultancy firm Indigenous Supply Chain Connections, he says emphasis needs to be placed on the human aspect of these business deals – taking care to acknowledge and plan for the differing familial and domestic dynamics of the people corporations will be employing.

“There’s been a lot of talk in the past about helping Indigenous communities get employment – particularly in the mining sector,” says Brown. “But a lot of it has been ticking boxes to make people happy, or to make it look like the company’s are doing their part for social responsibility. The reality is that a lot of the initiatives don’t reach through to the community level because there’s not an understanding of how Indigenous communities work at the ground level.

“A lot of money goes into these programs from both government and corporate bodies” he adds, “but when I go into the communities and see people still living in poverty, with continually high rates of rape and domestic abuse – to me it’s clear that something is not yet working.”

Having himself worked with numerous Indigenous businesses, Brown says the main issue he sees is a lack of corporate understanding of family relationships in the community. A working individual may be seen as an outcast from their peers, or a way for others to piggyback on their financial gains. Being sensitive to this is crucial in ensuring change is made at a foundational level. Establishing effective mentorship and coaching programs is one way of achieving this – creating a middle ground between community and corporation.

“If you create employment you can help the whole family,” says Brown. “Believe in the people, in the person. If you empower that person to want to learn, to look after the family – that’s how effective change can happen.”