OpinionGeneration One30 Mar 2021

True impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Australians unknown

Chief executive officer of Generation One, Shelley Cable, shares her thoughts about the lack of data on Indigenous Australians’ employment status.

Shelley Cable presenting at a Generation One masterclass in Perth. Photo Credit: Emma Dolzadelli via Minderoo Foundation.

If Treasury estimates are correct, up to 150,000 Australians will today find themselves officially unemployed.

A breakdown of those job losses – as a result of JobKeeper ending yesterday – will tell you the industries hardest hit include events, tourism and the arts. Other analysis might conclude women or young people are disproportionately affected.

However, no chart or graphic will tell you how many of those people waking up unemployed today are Indigenous Australians. In fact, no one knows the answer.

Generation One, an initiative of Minderoo Foundation, recently commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to undertake an economic analysis to identify the impacts of COVID-19 on the employment of Indigenous Australians.

Previous research suggested that marginalised populations, including Indigenous peoples, were more sensitive to economic shocks, such as a pandemic. While we expected the COVID-19 impact figures to be bad, what we didn’t expect was no figures at all.

“The true impacts of the pandemic on Indigenous employment are still not known,” the report says. “The lack of representative, meaningful and timely data on Indigenous Australians’ employment status and experience is a material barrier to undertaking the required analysis.”

The invisibility of Indigenous Australians within the labour force did not start with the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the last time a comprehensive picture was built on the Indigenous workforce was during the 2016 Census.

As a result, today it is unknown how many Indigenous Australians have lost their jobs. We could be staring at the single biggest blow to Indigenous employment since Closing the Gap began, and not even know it.

The 2020 Closing the Gap report estimated, using data from years earlier, that the employment gap had closed only 1.3 per cent in an entire decade. With the suspected impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Indigenous workforce, Deloitte estimates that even this meagre progress has been sent backwards by years.

If we really want to drive change and “build back better”, especially in an area as nuanced as Indigenous employment, we need the best information at our fingertips, to make the best decisions and the smartest investments with our limited resources and time. Having no recent data makes an already difficult task harder.

Our mission at Generation One is to create employment parity with and for Indigenous Australians, within one generation. We know that better data is critical to this mission, and it is especially needed to promote an inclusive economic recovery.

To this end, we are calling on every Australian workplace to understand and report on the state of Indigenous employment in their own organisations.

Of course, sourcing and reporting this data will take time. On the gender front, it took years for workplaces in Australia to begin capturing and reporting annually on gendered employment data. The establishment of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) and supporting legislation has ensured this reporting remains business as usual.

An equivalent model for Indigenous employment would produce similar transparency, accountability, and momentum.

There is no good reason that Indigenous Australians, with the longest history of hard work and economic participation anywhere in the world, should experience higher unemployment than other Australians, whether in times of crisis or not.

Ensuring Indigenous Australians are not left behind in economic crises and are positively included in our economic recovery is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

The fact that we do not collect regular Indigenous employment data implies we do not care about Indigenous workers and their experiences. Based on the leaders I work with across corporate Australia, governments and communities, I know this is simply not the case.

Data drives our economy. It drives our lives.

If you can measure it, you can manage it.

Whether you are a business leader, an Indigenous employee, or the government – let’s close this data gap with speed, so we can build back better and make meaningful progress towards Indigenous employment parity.

Shelley Cable
by Shelley Cable

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.

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