This Reconciliation week, HRM wanted to find out how the recent crisis has affected Indigenous communities. So it reached out to someone in the know.
One of the more awful truths of this pandemic is that it has had, and continues to have, a disproportionate impact on already vulnerable communities. Whether it is black Americans hurt by pre-existing health and economic disparities or migrant workers crammed into miserable living quarters in Singapore, marginalised people have borne an unequal amount of deprivation, infections and deaths.
Australia, unfortunately, is not immune to this trend. Its Indigenous community has been hit hard in more than a few ways
March is usually when the ‘Close the Gap’ report is released and gets widespread media coverage. Due to the pandemic the national attention was elsewhere, so the 2020 report and its results are not as known as they might have been otherwise. Unsurprisingly, for those who have read the reports of previous years, its findings were often saddening.
For example, it states: “[T]he 2020 Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap Report found that only two of the seven targets are on track. Despite 12 years of action little progress has been made.”
The section on health in the report is worth reading in full, and it actually strikes something of a hopeful tone as it documents the gradual reevaluation of how we assess Indigenous health. But of particular interest is the reference to World Health Organisation research, which found:
“Up to a third (34%) of the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other Australians’ health outcomes can be explained by social determinants of health, such as education, employment, housing and income, which all exert a powerful effect on the health and wellbeing of all peoples.”
This research helps explain both some of the outcomes we have seen and the preemptive actions taken by governments to protect Indigenous communities – which have had complicated results.
HRM spoke to George Mifsud, director at Indigenous Defence and Infrastructure Consortium, about how Indigenous Australians have fared during this pandemic. He says while all Australians are suffering, a few specific factors have made the suffering of Indigenous Australia disproportionate.
Social services under pressure
Mifsud says a lot of Indigenous people work in the community services sector, which was having difficulties even prior to COVID-19.
“You’ve got a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who work in the social services sector or community sector, and often their roles are in not-for-profits. What we’re seeing is a lot of those jobs are being pulled because of funding issues.
“Many Indigenous Australians have applied for jobs and gotten interviews for those roles, only to be told, ‘Sorry we can’t go ahead because we just don’t have funding.’”
Social distancing requirements also mean many employees in the social and community services have to completely change how they approach work. But to even engage in safe practices means having the ability to get to your job in the first place.
Actions taken by government authorities through the Biosecurity Act mean that access to many Indigenous communities has been restricted.
“There are a number of Indigenous communities that have been put into lockdown, which is making it very difficult for people in those communities to leave unless they’re essential workers,” says Mifsud. “People can’t get to their jobs because there are rules saying they have to be locked down, rules which don’t apply to other Australians.”
While obviously well intentioned, the government restrictions mean that it’s not just employees but also businesses within these communities that have been effected.
And while many Australians who can’t get to their workplace have had the ability to work from home, a lot of Indigenous employees don’t have that option.
“Changing to remote work has had a massive impact on Indigenous workers. When you look at it from a technology point of view, it’s a lot harder for a lot of people to access a computer at home. A lot of Aboriginal people don’t own a computer,” says Mifsud. “When you look at people in remote communities they have issues with internet connections and internet speed.”
This was something the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia flagged in April. “The extent of digital exclusion is not adequately captured by simply considering the 2.5 million offline Australians. Understanding who these Australians are and getting them online is important, but the ability of internet users to reap the social and economic benefits of being online is also determined by the effectiveness and affordability of their internet access and the skills they have in using the internet.”
Employment of the homeless
As well as a computer, working from home usually requires something else – a home. Indigenous Australians are disproportionately represented in homeless communities and COVID-19 hasn’t made it any easier for them to find work.
“In urban areas, like Sydney, there are a lot of homeless people and unfortunately many of those are Indigenous Australians,” says Mifsud. “As a result of COVID-19, a lot of homeless people are being relocated from one part of the city to another. Many of these people have a point of contact who they go to pick up their mail from, or apply for jobs. But when they’re relocated they lose that contact.
“They can’t apply for jobs now because they don’t have access to technology, they can’t check their mail – the setups they had are removed.”
Overrepresentation in casual employment
Casual and blue collar workers have been particularly impacted by this, both due to the nature of JobKeeper (which excludes casual workers with less than 12 months tenure) and the fact the industries with lots of casual and blue collar workers (such as tourism and hospitality) have been hurt by the pandemic.
Indigenous workers are highly concentrated in these types of employment. ABS data from 2019 says 55 per cent of Indigenous employees work in roles requiring a Certificate III or below, compared to 42 per cent of non-Indigenous workers. And, looking at data from 2014, 35 per cent of the Indigenous workforce were in casual jobs, compared to 25 per cent of the non-Indigenous workforce. With an estimated one million casual workers ineligible for the wage subsidy, it’s believed that 10 per cent of Indigenous workers in casual roles will be unable to receive JobKeeper.
Tips for HR
But the key to overcoming tough circumstances is to not abandon hope. If HR professionals want to do more in this period to help Indigenous Australians one of the best ways is to hire them.
Mifsud says Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander people tend to seek employment within Indigenous-run organisations, because these organisations are seen as “culturally safe”. But lots of organisations are doing their best to make sure they are viewed the same way (we spoke to more than a few in 2018). HRM wrote a guide on three things organisations should know about Indigenous employment that can help.
Mifsud has further advice. He recommends the following steps for organisations:
- Have a strategy around diversity and inclusions that identifies Indigenous engagement
- Have a Reconciliation Action Plan
- Support Indigenous organisations where you can
- Provide education to non-Indigenous employees about First Peoples
Looking more long term, Mifsud says if companies can upskill Indigenous employees and provide them with access to education while they’re working, then that is likely to have a flow on effect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as a whole. Programs like CareerTrackers have had wonderful results – HRM spoke to a successful intern that now works in HR.
There is an old principle that says people should be measured by how they treat those who are most vulnerable. In this pandemic, that’s a value worth remembering.