• The employment section of a newspaper. (AAP)Source: AAP
OPINION: Employment as a social inclusion tool can be detrimental for the people it targets if they are only offered low-level, inferior quality jobs, writes Byamee Institute CEO Simon Jovanovic.
Simon Jovanovic

6 Aug 2020 - 2:51 PM  UPDATED 6 Aug 2020 - 2:51 PM

Since the late 1970's, we've seen an emergence of racialised policies targeted at increasing the representation of Indigenous people in workplaces. Indigenous refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. These policies have continued a long tradition that frames Indigenous people as a different 'race', a deficit disadvantaged minority.

At face value these mean well. The policies explain that Indigenous people are employed to deliver services for the Indigenous community. They supply support for Indigenous employees through tailored mentoring, peer support and leadership. They also highlight the importance of increasing the number of Indigenous people in organisations to achieve three per cent parity with the Australian population.  

The NSW public sector Aboriginal employment strategy sets a target to increase the representation of Indigenous people to 3 per cent of all staff in non-executive positions by 2025. This target excludes executive roles such as Chief Executive Officer or Executive Director. But why not set a realistic target of three per cent of Indigenous people in executive positions? What if 20 per cent or 35 per cent of the clients of the department or agency are Indigenous? Wouldn't it be right to set employment targets on parity with the percentage of Indigenous clients of the agency?

The recently launched Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment strategy also says that many Indigenous employees are working at entry level and most remain on lower salaries. Earlier reviews of the strategy found that Indigenous staff have the highest representation in lower salary classes and are significantly underrepresented in higher ones. Employment as a social inclusion tool can be detrimental for the people it targets if they are only offered low-level, inferior quality jobs

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These strategies aim to enhance and improve the skills and knowledge of the Indigenous workforce, yet nothing is happening - so what gives? What are the assumptions that are being made? Why do these policies assume that Indigenous workers do not have the necessary skills and abilities to be executive leaders and managers? If there were such as large concentration of workers from a disadvantaged group at the lower classifications for over four decades, would this be morally justified? 

So, these policies have not effectively improved the representation of Indigenous people in executive positions in the public sector. While representation has not improved in this area, it has increased others. In comparison, we have also seen a significant increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody over the past 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991. We have also seen a massive increase in Indigenous Expenditure, which totals $33 billion annually. Interestingly though, only $6 billion is spent on targeted programs for Indigenous citizens, compared to $27.4 billion spent on non-targeted, mainstream services.

So from the 1990’s to now, we have seen an over representation of Indigenous people in lower levels of public service agencies and in custody, and there's been a significant increase in Indigenous expenditure being spent on non-targeted, mainstream services. This key background information does not get a mention in both the Commonwealth and NSW public service Aboriginal employment policies. These policies instead present problematic assumptions about Indigenous people. They promote the employment of Indigenous people based on their identity, which makes Aboriginality a genuine occupational qualification.

How could one's race determine their qualification, capability, and skill? Where does race stand in the employment sector and why is it used as a determinant of employment in Australia? Where does race sit within the Australian Qualifications Framework in the education and training system? It doesn't.

Race itself is a social construct. Even the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1969 condemned the practice of racial differentiation as scientifically false, morally condemnable, and dangerous in theory or in practice. Why is race continually used by policymakers to determine, shape, guide, and influence the employment of Indigenous people in organisations and race-based positions across Australia? 

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The Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment strategy and NSW public sector Aboriginal employment strategy states that tailored mentoring and support will enhance Indigenous peoples’ career progression. This assumes the Aboriginal employees are inherently deficit and homogeneous in skills, capabilities and knowledge to progress their career.

There is also an assumption that all Indigenous people are the same and lesser than non-Indigenous peoples. Public sector Aboriginal employment policies assume all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are homogeneous. In a sense, a one size fits all policy for a race of people who work in binary with and are helped by non-Indigenous people.   

What other racialised policies are there in our workplaces? Have you ever seen a racialised policy for white Australians, Muslim women, or non-Indigenous people? If so, then would this practice of racial difference be morally justified or would it be considered racism or culturally insensitive.

The above comments draw light to the everyday realities Indigenous people may experience in Australian workplaces. Indigenous people need to be employed based on their qualifications and experience, not race. Indigenous senior-level representation in Indigenous Affairs will see no real change if we keep using racial classifications and deficit-based employment policies as a basis for employment. 

-Simon Jovanovic is a Walbunja man and the founder and CEO of the Byamee Institute. He  is a innovator and advocate for Aboriginal economic development and employment policy and has worked in the field of Aboriginal affairs since 2010.