Mining the middle class

Millions of dollars are spent on Aboriginal programs each year, but finding out just how effective these initiatives are depends on who you ask.

According to Professor Marcia Langton, chair of Australian indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne, the mining industry is helping pull many Aboriginal Australians out of poverty.

By Langton’s count around 7,000 indigenous people work in Australia’s mining industry, and like most other people in the sector, they’re raking in a decent wage for their work.

But more than the money, these people have been trained in skills they can use for life.

Skills pay the bills

According to Langton, once the cycle is broken and Aboriginal Australians find work, the skills, education, and prospects are passed on to the next generation.

“The outcome of that is that they send their kids to school, they acquire assets,” she told ITV news.

And while there’s some pessimism about how much impact miners have made, Langton said the improvements over the last ten years had been larger than many realised.

Mining companies in Western Australia, which operate in regions with high indigenous populations, are a case in point.

In the mid 1990s less than half a per cent of Rio Tinto’s workforce was indigenous.

Now, along with other resource giants in the Pilbara, it’s made significant inroads into bridging the gap.

Miners in the Pilbara are at the forefront of industry efforts to raise indigenous employment. (Flickr/ Julian Frost)

Last year Rio employed 1,100 Aboriginal people, representing around 11 per cent of its total WA workforce, and the company is hoping to move to 20 per cent by 2015.

In the Pilbara BHP Billiton employs 10,000 people, with just under 1,000 of those being Aboriginal.

Fortescue Metals Group, the region’s other big employer, has also brought its indigenous workforce up to around 10 per cent in WA.

“The emergence of an Aboriginal middle class in Australia in the last two to three decades has gone largely unnoticed,” Langton said in ABC Boyer lecture recently.

“While the numbers remain small, this change heralds an economic future for Aboriginal people unimaginable 50 years ago.”

Underpinning these advancements is native title law, which most experts credit with clearing the path toward fair negotiations between miners and Aboriginals.

But while Langton’s claims are encouraging news, indigenous disadvantage is still high in mining regions, and some Aboriginal groups (such as YAC) don’t think miners are doing enough to help improve the situation.

Tough Times

Over half a decade ago a study published by the Australian National University highlighted the chronic social problems facing indigenous Australians in the Pilbara.

Six years later very little has improved on those fronts.

Statistics showed a vast majority of indigenous adults did not have full schooling, or a qualification, and around half remained outside the labour force.

They also showed many indigenous adults (especially young males) had been arrested and incarcerated, and others were suffering from chronic health problems that required strict management.

“Despite 40 years of substantial economic development in the Pilbara region, the labour force status of indigenous Pilbara residents has barely altered,” researchers concluded.

Such sobering statistics prove that while the mining industry has played a small part in contributing to indigenous participation, the problems run deep and require attention from all stakeholders.

Langton is right to herald the beginnings of an Aboriginal middle class in Australia, and other research shows this trend has expanded beyond those attached to the mining sector.

But for the moment this resurgence is in its early days, and there are still plenty of problems that miners, indigenous groups, and governments alike need to work on.

Image: Flickr/ Julian Frost

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