Aboriginal groups are demanding concrete quotas for Indigenous employment on the Federal Government’s $10 billion inland rail project, saying it’s “not good enough” no targets have been set.
The Melbourne-to-Brisbane freight rail line has been touted as “nation building” and is expected to create 5,500 direct jobs in the construction phase, which will begin early next year.
The rail line runs through Moree in north-western New South Wales and its Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC) is demanding a written guarantee 20 per cent of the workforce upgrading the track will be Indigenous.
One-fifth of the shire’s population is Aboriginal.
The deputy chairman of Moree’s LALC, Lloyd Munro, said all too often the builders of major projects made promises but didn’t follow through.
“We’ve been burnt too many times … if it is in writing, well, they’ve got to do it,” Mr Munro said.
“They generally come with workers themselves instead of employing locals.”
The NSW Aboriginal Land Council oversees the local land councils, and supports Moree in its demands for a 20 per cent target.
“We would welcome that number and support that number, if not a little bit higher, depending on the communities that this corridor is going through,” said Roy Ah-See, chairman of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
Indigenous employment will be our priority: ARTC CEO
However, the Government-owned builder of the multi-billion-dollar project, the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), has told the ABC it has no targets for Aboriginal employment.
“We have not set any targets at all but we are very keen to make sure we get maximum participation from the local communities, and in particular Aboriginal communities, on the [rail] corridor,” ARTC CEO John Fullerton said.
Mr Fullerton said the ARTC already employed about 50 Indigenous people nationwide, which was 2.7 per cent of its workforce.
“We are a large employer of Indigenous people in the company today and it’s certainly going to be our priority to employ as many as we can in those local communities,” he said.
Mr Ah-See said that wasn’t good enough.
“They need to set some targets … council would be looking for a briefing sooner rather than later,” he said.
“For far too long now Aboriginal people have been the last people to go to when it comes to employment or economic development opportunities.”
He said the percentage employed was, “a bit small at the moment” and his council would reach out to the ARTC in the near future.
“[We want to] basically encourage the ARTC to not see us as a barrier, but rather a solution … and forming a relationship and a partnership,” Mr Ah-See said.
Mr Munro said the Moree land council has had no contact from the ARTC, and if no concrete targets were secured they would ramp up pressure by lobbying state and federal politicians.
“It’s not good enough. If you want to make those statements you need to come and talk to the land council, you need to talk to the Aboriginal community of Moree and also surrounding areas,” he said.
The unemployment rate in Moree is 6.4 per cent, about 1 per cent higher than the national average.
However, according to the not-for-profit Aboriginal Employment Strategy (AES), an employment agency in Moree, 60 per cent of Aboriginal people in the town are unemployed.
One of those people is Jason Saunders. The 22-year-old A-grade football player has been looking for work since last November.
His last job was on the construction of a solar farm, and he’s very keen to get work on the inland rail project.
He said any new jobs for local people would be a major boost.
“It would be really good for them [locals] to get out of town, do work, instead of messing around,” he said. “Construction … anything would be good.”
Indigenous people ‘want action, not words’
The manager of the north-west branch of the AES, Cathy Duncan, a Gomeroi woman, agreed targets were crucial.
Ms Duncan, who is also a founder of the national agency, which is funded by Prime Minister and Cabinet, said “warm and fluffy” rhetoric didn’t cut it.
“I think Aboriginal people are sick of the tick-a-box in government contracts, or the goodwill around, ‘We are going to employ Indigenous people’,” Ms Duncan said.
“I think into the future it is about having quotas, having agreements, and then having monitoring of and accountability within those agreements.”
But she said forewarning and consultation with the ARTC was crucial to ensuring local Aboriginal people had time to attain skills.
“If we plan and have those consultations and conversations a lot earlier in the piece, it gives us the opportunity to be able to train and develop our own people to be able to take up opportunities that could be given to them,” she said.
Ms Duncan said there were already courses available that could be used to start training people, including specific rail courses her organisation had been involved with in Dubbo and Tamworth.
‘Not nation-building if they’re not talking to Aboriginal people’
Inland rail’s advocates have labelled it a “nation-building project” and “the Snowy Hydro Scheme for the modern era”.
“No way in the world it’s a nation-building program if they’re not talking to the Aboriginal people,” Mr Munro said.
Ms Duncan agreed, adding: “I think that what would have to happen to make it truly nation building is see the inclusion, see real outcomes, and see the Aboriginal people participating in the workforce and on job sites.
“If not, it is a nice fluffy word, and it makes everybody feel good, but part of the nation is making sure we include first-nation people if we’re going to build a nation.”