First Nations workers continue to be ignored despite job shortages across the country

At Clothing the Gaps in Melbourne’s inner north, Bundjalung woman Ebony Popple is excited to come to work in an environment where she can be herself.

At the two stores, more than 90 percent of the staff are First Nations, a proportion almost unheard of for most workplaces.

“It’s for the best,” he said.

“It’s so nice to wake up and have your culture celebrated every day.

“Feeling culturally safe, being able to celebrate alongside the whole mob is amazing and important to me.”

Not all of her workplaces have been as welcoming, and like most indigenous workers, she has experienced her fair share of racism.

“I’ve experienced racism at work before, both in old workplaces and in my new workspace, although unfortunately I think that’s the way it is,” he said.

“Living in the neighborhood, racism is everywhere.”

He said there was a big difference between the way Clothing the Gaps dealt with incidents compared to other workplaces.

“What has made a big difference in working in a Blak business is the way it is run,” he said.

“I feel a great sense of support from my staff and also from my bosses if I were to ever report something that happened.”

Racism, exclusion and identity tension are contributing factors to high levels of indigenous unemployment and, ahead of the jobs and skills summit, advocates want the government to discuss national reform.

Disadvantaged indigenous people in the workplace

The reasons behind high indigenous unemployment rates are complex, but often relate to access to education, opportunity, trauma, and ultimately racism.

The data on indigenous experiences at work paints a shocking picture, with a report from the Jumbunna Institute showing that more than a quarter of those surveyed work in culturally unsafe spaces, and nearly half have heard racial slurs at work.

Such experiences often force indigenous workers out of the labor market and compound intergenerational trauma.

Eora’s wife, Nareen Young, one of the researchers on the Gari Yala report, said it was clear that most indigenous people experienced racial prejudice because of their culture.

“Most indigenous people are disadvantaged in employment and the labor market due to racism in the workplace,” said Professor Young.

“There’s a lot of overt racism, that kind of thing like ‘you only got this job because you’re indigenous,’ or ‘you don’t look indigenous.

“The undercover stuff is just as important.

“Our survey, Gari Yala, reports many different forms of racism, cultural charge, identity tension, and we know that indigenous people experience that in the workplace.”

A dark-haired woman in glasses looks at the camera in an office.
Nareen Young says there is overt and covert racism in the workplace.(ABC RN: Tracey Trompf)

Next week at the highly anticipated Jobs and Skills summit, the federal government will unveil its new policy to replace the much-criticized Community Development Program.

The policy was essentially a work-for-subsidy scheme for people in remote parts of the country, but was found to exploit and disadvantage indigenous participants.

Advocates are happy the policy is scrapped, but want new policies to look at ways to increase employment nationally.

Professor Young said that government policy was important to address the problem, but that industry must also take action to address the problem.

“It is something necessary and intractable for the government to deal with because it is a political issue,” he said.

“It’s up to us in the broader sector to do our thing. Obviously we want to be an indigenous-led employment policy, across the commercial industry, that community sector, wherever indigenous people work is the same wherever everyone else works.” .

Unencouraged aspiration pathways for indigenous job seekers

For those navigating the labor market, accessing paid work can be difficult and leading service providers often have a poor understanding of the barriers indigenous peoples face.

Mistrust of government organizations is common in indigenous communities, and things like birth certificates or driver’s licenses, which have become common requirements for job applications, are not always available.

Indian Employment Partners (IEP) operations manager and Gunai Kurnai woman Donna Gleisner said indigenous people were rarely encouraged to follow aspirational paths in the mainstream system.

“There’s a lot of ‘just get a job,’ there’s no ‘what’s your career path’ or ‘what do you really want to do’ or ‘what gets you out of bed in the morning,'” he said.

“It’s just ‘we just have to give this person a job,’ and just throw them into unstable employment a lot of times.”

A blonde woman with glasses looks at the camera.
Donna Gleisner says there is a lack of encouragement for indigenous peoples to follow aspirational paths.(ABC News: Simon Tucci)

Ms. Gleisner said that certain paths could also re-traumatize some workers.

“I remember talking to a candidate, we couldn’t understand why they weren’t accepting these job offers that we were giving them, it was along the lines of we were looking for cleaning jobs and stuff for them,” he said. .

“Then we found out that her grandmother had basically been a domestic servant or a slave.

“So when you go or you’re a cleaner, they just go. I’m not going to do that, because of the stories that have been passed down to them.”

The IEP takes a “whole” approach, supporting job seekers on the path from interview to employment and helping them stay in their roles or advance within a company.

Workplaces are also screened to ensure employees go to culturally safe and responsible places where Indigenous employees can thrive.

“We can feel like you’re just checking a box, you’re just trying to meet your acquisition target and you’re not really interested in knowing what you need to do,” Ms Gleisner said.

“So, we can also say, ‘I don’t think you’re right for us,’ so we don’t think we’re going to place any of our personas with you.”

Wolithika man Kyle Atkinson smiles for the camera during an interview.
Kyle Atkinson now works as a mentor helping other job seekers.(ABC News: Simon Tucci)

The Wolithika man, Kyle Atkinson, was a client of the service not long ago, but has now been recruited to advise other indigenous job seekers.

“That’s the kind of work I wanted to do, it was to help the mob and just get the mob back on track,” he said.

“I’ll try to keep them motivated and busy and, you know, I’ll just get over the hurdles that I need to get a job.”

You can also share your experiences with job seekers and help them navigate what can be a daunting process.

“I’ve been through it all. It’s just having someone walk alongside them and walk them through the next steps from someone who’s been through it,” Mr. Atkinson said.

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