How mining supports Indigenous Australians

BHP has set a high standard for Indigenous employment in the Pilbara. Credit: BHP

Research from the Asia and Pacific Policy Studies Centre found the number of Indigenous Australians working in the mining industry has more than doubled since the 1990s – rising from “the hundreds” to more than 7000 by 2011.

This surge after 2011 has been attributed to the increase of Indigenous Land Use Agreements between mining companies and Indigenous communities, which allow negotiations over several native title factors, such as compensation, protection of cultural sites and future acts.

The study also found higher employment rates for Indigenous Australians in regions with mining activity.

“In remote areas, the overall Indigenous employment rate in mining areas was four percentage points higher than in non-mining areas (43 per cent compared with 39 per cent), and the rate of full-time employment was five percentage points higher,” the study said.

“In non-remote areas, there was an even more marked difference, with 55 per cent of Indigenous people in employment (compared with 48 per cent in non-mining areas), and the full-time employment rate in mining areas was seven percentage points higher.”

But it is not just in employment that mining companies support Indigenous Australians, with various school programs, scholarships and training opportunities provided as well.

The majors have often implemented these strategies, such as Rio Tinto’s Indigenous Scholarship Program for those in tertiary studies and Fortescue Metals Group’s Jawun program, which places skilled workers into Indigenous organisations to support Indigenous leaders reach their own development goals.

And better yet, in August this year, an Indigenous-owned mine and training centre was opened in the Northern Territory. Established by Gumatj Corporation in the Northeast Arnham Land – with support from Rio Tinto – the Gulkula Regional Training Centre and Gulkula bauxite mining operation is set to bring economic benefits for the local Yolngu people. It is 100 per cent owned by the Gumatj clan.

BHP’s approach to supporting Indigenous Australians

BHP completed its fifth Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) for 2017-2020, designed to “acknowledge and respect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”, by contributing to their “sustainable, long term economic empowerment and social and cultural wellbeing”.

WA iron ore asset president Edgar Basto told Australian Mining that at the end of the previous RAP in 2016, the company employed 950 Aboriginal and Torres Islander people across its Australian businesses, with several others employed through its contractors.

He also commented on the other benefits of its previous RAP.

“Around 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander apprentices and trainees have been employed over the life time of our most recent RAP,” Basto said.

“Around $350 million worth of contracts have been awarded to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander business between 2013 and 2015. Over 100 Indigenous Tertiary scholarships have been awarded since 2013 and more than 22,000 Australian-based employees were trained in cultural competency.”

Basto reinforced the importance of mining companies providing employment opportunities to Indigenous Australians.

“We know that by providing sustainable opportunities in education, employment and business for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the benefits flow both ways,” he said.

“Many of our operations are located on or near traditional Indigenous lands and the long-term nature of our operations allow us to establish long lasting relationships with the Indigenous communities in which we operate and for those neighbouring our operations.

“We have agreements with Traditional Owner groups across Australia in relation to ensuring there is access to education, training and employment programs so Traditional Owners have the capacity to participate in direct employment opportunities with the business.”

BHP has noticed a number of benefits from the opportunities the company has offered Indigenous people.

“What we have seen is that employment opportunities with BHP often create a significant increase in income for Indigenous Australians,” he said. “This has a positive impact on families and we hear many stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been empowered to purchase their first home or support their families in other ways.

“We also believe that our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees are role models for others in their families and communities and we believe that their employment creates a ripple effect for the next generation.”

This year, BHP announced plans to double the number of apprenticeships and traineeships it will provide in 2018 – taking on 200 more positions as it expands its training program. Most of the intake will go to young people in the Pilbara, with a key target to award one in five of them to Indigenous people.

“Our 2018 campaign is still under recruitment but I am excited that the increase in the apprentice and trainee intake will create further opportunities for Indigenous people in the Pilbara,” Basto said.

Adding contractors to the mix

Mining contractors have also maintained a strong position when it comes to Indigenous employment. Western Australian-based contractor NEMMS (Nyiyaparli Engineering Mine Maintenance Service) JV – which is 50 per cent Indigenous owned – was founded nearly five years ago and undertakes both civil and mining works.

NEMMS JV CEO Clinton told Australian Mining one of its main focuses was linking the outcomes of Indigenous communities with their client’s outcomes. As a result, in the first two years of the company’s development, it delivered three houses to displaced elders during the stolen generation, returning them back to their homeland.

In the mining sector, the company began with an iron ore contract across Roy Hill’s mine, rail and port infrastructure. It has also worked with Rio Tinto, Anglo Gold Ashanti and Fortescue Metals Group.

Keenan said the company aimed to deliver sustainable and tangible outcomes to Indigenous Australians.

“We’ve always been a company that has looked to be known by the development we do, whether they be the development of outcomes for our clients, or support of our partners in the community,” he said.

“We are looking to essentially grow on the back of longer term opportunities under which we can develop longer term solutions for both our clients and the community.”

Keenan added that there were still more opportunities for Indigenous businesses in the mining industry.

“I think there’s a definite void in the market for a credible Indigenous business that is able to take on what would essentially be some of the more complex scopes,” he said.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest from larger Tier 1 mines looking to partner with us and support us as well for some of those more technically complex works. We see a definite opportunity to start to open up to large expansion programs in their portfolio and hopefully there will be an ongoing swing in the commodity environment so that we can continue to expand our scope, not only across the Pilbara but across other areas in WA and beyond.”