The impacts and opportunities of crises do not fall evenly across all sections of Australian society. An inconvenient truth of the COVID-19 pandemic is that Indigenous Australians will bear a disproportionate brunt of the job losses.
Although the saying “last in, first out” might not sit comfortably for some, it is a reality that Indigenous workers are faced with in periods of economic downturn.
But in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity. In this moment we are presented a unique possibility to shift the dial on Indigenous employment as we rebuild our economy and shape our future workforce.
Before the pandemic began, employment figures already reflected a disproportionately small Indigenous labour force, including both Indigenous people in work and looking for work. And yet, from this base, unemployment was still excessively high at around three times the Australian average.
The intersect of youth unemployment presents additional complexities. Australia-wide, youth aged 15-24 face unemployment rates more than double the Australian average. Considering that half the Indigenous Australian population is under the age of 24, the double whammy of being young and Indigenous imposes the toughest job prospects, with the highest expectations to ‘Close the Gap’, on our young and future generations.
Considering other characteristics of the Indigenous workforce such as overall lower educational attainment, proportionately more casual workers and proportionately fewer professionals and managers, we can begin to understand the critical warning signs for Indigenous employment in times of crisis.
From this standpoint, many employers and jobseekers alike are looking to realise a new status quo in Indigenous employment through the disruption of COVID-19. Coles is one such example. In the rush to meet customer demand and panic buying, Coles used the opportunity to recruit more than 400 Indigenous team members in four weeks. Despite the economic headwinds of a pandemic, Coles – already one of Australia’s largest employers of Indigenous people – boosted its Indigenous workforce by another 10 per cent.
The opportunity for Indigenous employment parity is bolstered by the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap, which progressed through final negotiations amidst the backdrop of the pandemic. Announced on Thursday, the 16 new targets include a more ambitious Indigenous employment target than ever before, as well as a specific target for the proportion of Indigenous youth in employment, education or training.
As we turn our attention to how we will create the jobs of the future in post-COVID Australia, the focus on Indigenous employment must be a key priority.
The Business Council of Australia estimates two million extra jobs will need to be created in the near term to help those on JobSeeker find work, and re-employ people currently on JobKeeper in companies that may need to restructure. How many of these jobs will go to Indigenous Australians?
For 3 per cent parity 60,000 of these new jobs must go to Indigenous Australians. These 60,000 jobs represent more than 10 per cent of the working age Indigenous population, and roughly a 25 per cent increase in the current number of Indigenous Australians employed. Herein lies a real chance to make meaningful progress in meeting the new employment targets.
While this is an ambitious target, we know Australian employers are up for the challenge. More than 60,000 Indigenous jobs were pledged by more than 350 employers through the Australian Employment Covenant, spearheaded by Andrew Forrest. Now is the time to reignite this push for parity.
Prioritising Indigenous employment does not need to come at the expense of other Closing the Gap targets. In fact, employment targets are the precursor to all others. We recently saw this in action when Indigenous people employed in positions of influence took decisive action to protect their communities from COVID-19. As a result, there was a disproportionately low number of COVID-19 cases amongst Indigenous Australians.
This pandemic has the chance to become an inflection point in the journey towards Indigenous parity. While we have the chance, let us shape our future workforce and economy to be an inclusive one.
Inclusive growth does not happen by accident and will require planning, investment, and constant management. In the Federal Government’s recently announced $2 billion JobTrainer skills package, Indigenous workforce development must be a core component of the plan. In auditing the interstate fly-in fly-out arrangements of resources companies, regional and Indigenous employment must be prioritised.
Despite the mountainous challenges the pandemic presents, the disruption is causing many policy makers and society at large to rethink the way we do things. From adversity comes opportunity, and what better opportunity than an inclusive economic recovery. The time is right for this thinking and reform.
Let’s not look back in 10 years and lament yet another missed opportunity for a new path toward achieving parity. Let’s get to work.
Shelley Cable is a Wilman-Nyoongar woman from Perth, Western Australia, and the leader of Minderoo Foundation’s Generation One initiative. Shelley has dedicated her career to promoting Indigenous leadership and ending economic disparity for her “mob”, striving for the empowerment of Indigenous Australians through financial literacy, and highlighting that self-determination begins with secure employment.