19/04/2005 - 22:00

Vital Indigenous resources role

19/04/2005 - 22:00


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The skills shortage in the resource industry is presenting a unique opportunity to solve the decades-long problem of chronic unemployment among Aboriginal people, particularly in the remote regions where miners tend to operate.

Vital Indigenous resources role

The skills shortage in the resource industry is presenting a unique opportunity to solve the decades-long problem of chronic unemployment among Aboriginal people, particularly in the remote regions where miners tend to operate.

Big resource companies in the Pilbara have already found that it makes economic sense to employ local Indigenous workers. But there is growing evidence that, as Western Australia’s unemployment rate dips below 5 per cent pressure to find workers is prompting miners to further access Aboriginal people, a demographic where unemployment rates have remained at about 25 per cent.

Work over the past decade by resource majors, particularly Rio Tinto, may have set the scene for greater Aboriginal involvement in the mining industry, but the skills shortage is now seen as a new driver to increase the pace of their involvement with resource companies.

In fact, Rio Tinto is so bullish about its plans to employ Aboriginal people it believes it will need to reach out beyond communities in its immediate vicinity to find the Indigenous labour it needs.

Current employment trends in the sector can be traced back to the Mabo decision of 1993, which caused an Aboriginal legal regime to exist over vast tracts of tribal land. Resource companies with the budget and the social will set up mechanisms for dialogue with the Aboriginal communities that inhabited the country where their ore bodies were located.

Oil and gas giant Woodside Petroleum, BHP Billiton and the Rio Tinto group can all boast of their links with Aboriginal people, but Rio Tinto is seen by governments as the leader when it comes to a relationship with the local community within which it operates.

The main Pilbara operation for Rio Tinto is situated at Dampier, the receiving point for nine iron ore mines run by subsidiary Pilbara Iron, which now employs 150 Aboriginal people as part of its integrated workforce of 6,500 in WA.

The landmass in which Pilbara Iron operates is about the same size as Victoria, and last year the nine mines between them produced 100 million tonnes of iron ore, bound mainly for 12 Chinese steel mills struggling to cope with the huge demands of that country’s mass industrialisation.

The company is hoping to increase its output to 150mt “within a year or so”, according to Pilbara Iron training manager Mark Simpson.

“It’s all being driven by Chinese growth,” Mr Simpson said.

The company has a 12-year history with the local Aboriginal community, and it’s a relationship that’s beginning to pay dividends.

By taking the approach of negotiation, Rio Tinto has saved hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees and project delays often resulting from litigation. And the company now has an effective Aboriginal recruiting policy, which includes infrastructure at all levels of Aboriginal society in the region, including an educational program for aspirant Aboriginal teenagers.

“We’re constantly getting people coming to have a look at our programs,” Mr Simpson said.

“That’s because they’re considered best practice. We’ve had three delegations of state politicians from South Australia, we regularly have federal politicians that come through and they’re looking at how the programs are going, why they’re working and how they can be adapted to their regions as well.

“We’ve had Peter Reith here, and Peter Costello. We’ve had a lot of them come through and get a good look at the programs.”

This year, Pilbara Iron intends to dramatically increase its Pilbara workforce to cope with the demand of a greatly increased iron ore output at its Dampier facility, which is currently undergoing a $1.6 billion upgrade.

“We’ll probably recruit around 1,100 people this year, and that is made up of about 800 new employees and about 300 existing employees turning over,” Mr Simpson said.

“We’ve got a target of 15 per cent of our workforce to be Indigenous. Even to keep pace with that we’re going to need 150 people this year, which is a very significant challenge given the numbers of people in this region who are ready to start work with us.”

Pilbara Iron has helped develop several contracting companies staffed exclusively by local Aboriginal workers, and the training of those staff is the responsibility of Camis Smith, a Pilbara Aboriginal man with traditional ties to the country that the company mines.

“Currently we have here in the ports a company called Brida, which is a sub agency that sprang out of the CDEP [Community Development Employment Projects] program in Roebourne,” Mr Smith said.

“And that group employs now somewhere in the order of 20 to 30 people who come in daily from Roebourne and work in the ports in the expansion upgrade work that’s currently under way. And I don’t know the exact figures but a significant amount of the salaries that are being paid go back into the community at Roebourne.”

Mr Simpson said the available Aboriginal labour force in the Pilbara was nearly exhausted, and Pilbara Iron was preparing for the first time to offer recruitment to Aboriginal people outside the region.

“There would be many hundreds of people at least who are employable across the state,” he said.

“That would include the Western Desert, the Murchison, the Gascoyne and into the Kimberley as well, and so now that we’re looking for Aboriginal people for our workforce from beyond this region then we need to look at those people as well.”

Mr Simpson said all resource companies employing Aboriginal people would need to look nation-wide, meaning that the opportunity for Indigenous Australians across all disciplines in the resources sector, including the white-collar workforce, had never been greater.

“If you’re an Aboriginal person in this region who wants a job with a mining company, you’re fit for work and you have the appropriate licences, then you should not have a problem getting a job.”

And apart from the strategic benefits of being a good local corporate citizen, the Aboriginal employees of Pilbara Iron are some of its best operators, according to Mr Smith.

“Many of the Aboriginal people who work in the business are actually some of our best employees,” he said.

“Some of our best operators are Indigenous people, because we train them very well and because they have very good skills once they have been trained well.”

Mr Smith said the growing number of local Aboriginal employees earning good salaries with the mining sector had resulted in emerging economic power in the Aboriginal community, and that was flowing right through to education and employment opportunities.

“Certainly those flexibilities were never around in the days when I grew up in a place like Roebourne,” he said. “And the options were to either become a mechanic or a truck driver and you did not have too many other options in between.

“Nowadays we have stories of Indigenous young men and women going off to university. That never happened in my day. It just didn’t exist.”



  • Rio Tinto subsidiary Pilbara Iron employs 150 Aboriginal people as part of its integrated workforce of 6,500 in WA.
  • Rio Tinto’s target is for 15 per cent of its workforce to be Indigenous.
  • The available supply of Indigenous workers in the Pilbara is nearing exhaustion.
  • Pilbara Iron has helped develop several contracting companies staffed exclusively by Aboriginal people.


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