Australia’s First Miners

Indigenous Workforce Participation

Indigenous labour is quickly remaking the face of the mining industry. ABC News reports that a decade ago, only half a per cent of Rio Tinto’s workforce was Indigenous. Today, the company hires more Indigenous workers than any other private employer in Australia – over 1,100 people representing at least 11 per cent of its total WA workforce. And, Rio Tinto aims to bring that total up to 20 per cent by 2015.

Around one out of every ten BHP Billiton employees in the Pilbara is Indigenous. According to ABC News, the 10,000 person workforce has added 300 Indigenous workers in a little over two years. And, in 2008, the company signed a $300 million contract with Ngarda – the largest mining contract an Indigenous operation has ever been awarded. Ngarda has gone on to employ over 2,000 Indigenous people from Western Australia.

Fortescue Metals Group’s Indigenous workforce has risen from 175 people to 412 in just two years, and now represents about 10 per cent of the company’s total workforce, ABC News reports. This percentage is as high as thirty per cent in the Pilbara, and Fortescue Metals Group hopes to soon bring the number of Indigenous employees to 500.

In the past, Indigenous people have been left out of many of the country’s mining opportunities, and the high employment numbers are a relatively new phenomenon within the industry. However, as labour demands skyrocket, some mines are now actively competing for Indigenous labour.


Insiders report that the increase in opportunities from mining sector employment is boosting socio-economic conditions across Indigenous communities. Many insist that participation in the mining industry has created positive role models for the younger generation to aspire to, and is alleviating a host of social and health related problems. For example, an overall increase in academic success among Indigenous miners’ children has been correlated with their parents’ recent success in the workplace. Many new employees simply see the work as an opportunity to provide for their families and earn what most Australians take for granted – a decent home and a working car.

Increased Indigenous representation in the mining industry may also lead to increased awareness and respect for diversity within that sector. Already, the mining industry is becoming increasingly respectful of Indigenous cultural obligations, with some companies even offering leave with pay to employees taking part in traditional ceremonies.

Not all opinions are so positive, however. Mining has historically been an area of contention between Indigenous people, industry, and government, and Indigenous rights activists warn against making simplistic assumptions regarding the negative or positive impact of mining on Indigenous communities. The issue is extremely complex and often complicated by cultural misunderstandings.

The Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research points out that many plans to benefit Indigenous people have been based on a culturally biased assumption that Indigenous communities will inherently benefit from Westernisation. The Centre argues that efforts should be made to view the Indigenous mining issue through an Indigenous lens, and to remember that great diversity of opinion exists within that community – from eager acceptance to complete rejection, and everything in between. The Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research also points out that the rise in a pro-mining narrative regarding Indigenous people conveniently coincides with an increased need for Indigenous labour and welfare reduction. The implication is that underlying negatives may be ignored for the sake of mining and government interests.

A number of more obvious concerns exist as well. Indigenous mining programs pull skilled, experienced personnel from the communities that may need them the most. This has particularly impacted the community services sector within Indigenous communities. Opponents also point out that, with a cultural emphasis on staying close to traditional lands, Indigenous workers may have to choose between unemployment and socio-cultural upheaval when mines close and the work moves elsewhere. Fly-in fly-out arrangements may also be damaging to the social structures of Indigenous communities. Although the impact has yet to be fully understood in Australia, high rates of male absenteeism for work obligations have negatively affected Indigenous families in other countries.

Bringing Indigenous Labour on Board

Many mining companies are actively recruiting Indigenous labour and a number of programs have been implemented to help people take advantage of burgeoning opportunities within the industry. One such program is Pathways to Pilbara, a new program designed to raise the standard of living for disadvantaged Indigenous Australians in the east by connecting them with resource sector jobs in the west. The program is also helping to provide much needed labour to remote mine sites.

Pathways to Pilbara trains under-employed and unemployed Indigenous men – and an increasing number of women – in the skills they will need for a mining job, including safety, first aid, environmental communication, and general education about the Pilbara region. Most participants have absolutely no mining experience and have only ever held dead end jobs – or none at all. After training, however, participants are well armed to embark on a lucrative career and the program sets them up with a WA employer for a fly-in fly-out job.

The program was developed by Wendy Yarnold, an Indigenous woman from Kempsey who has lived in the WA Goldfields region for many years. ABC News reports that Ms Yarnold developed the program in an effort to share Western Australia’s mining wealth with underprivileged Indigenous people from the New South Wales mid-north coast. She believes that the increased economic opportunity will help create long term solutions for Indigenous social problems.

Internships aimed at young Indigenous students are also available. Career Trackers, a national non-profit organisation offers Indigenous students on-the-job training and the likelihood of a long term career after graduation. The organisation has been actively expanding its presence in the resource industry to capitalise on the growing opportunities within that sector for the next generation of Indigenous Australians. Interns gain access to coveted positions within major mining companies and, through practical experience, learn valuable skills – from drill and blast to trucks and transport – that can be applied to a future resource sector career.


Regardless of the last century’s statistics, Australia’s first people aren’t new to mining. In fact, Indigenous people had been successfully extracting valuable resources from the earth thousands of years before the first European set foot on the continent. Indigenous mining endeavours were relatively sophisticated and early efforts to produce high quality stones and ochre led to the development of long distance trade routes, promoting the spread of new ideas and technologies across hundreds of kilometres.

Traditional Indigenous lifestyles called for a variety of stones, mainly silcrete, chert, granite and quartz. These stones were essential for making hammers, spears, axes and tools used for gathering and processing food, some of which have since been found dating back more than 40,000 years. Ochre was important to Indigenous Australians for its artistic and spiritual value. The pigment was used for body decoration, drawings and rock paintings, many of which survive today in the Wollemi National Park and the Blue Mountains National Park. Australia’s first people also mined coal to use for fuel and cooking.

A substantial amount of Indigenous mining practices were lost or destroyed as a consequence of European colonialism. But, according to the New South Wales Mineral Council, the remains of Indigenous mines can still be found in Australia: 183 have been identified in NSW alone, of which 144 are stone quarries, 17 are ochre mines, and 22 are undeterminable.

Now, as Indigenous participation within the industry breaks new ground, the Indigenous connection to mining is no longer relegated to the past. Norman Moore, Minister for Mining and Petroleum, reported to ABC News that mining opportunities for Indigenous Australians are extensive, and only likely to increase. “I think if you look at all of the industries in this country, I suspect the mining industry provides significantly more jobs for Aboriginal people than any other industry.” Mr Moore also joins a substantial Indigenous voice within the industry hoping to see Indigenous Australians increase their influence within the sector.

Although valid concerns and potential complications certainly exist, many government officials, mining insiders, and Indigenous communities envision a day in the near future in which a number of mines will be fully Indigenous owned and operated, an event they believe will arm Australia’s first people with new found pride and economic power.

Strategic Resources

There are 17 classified rare earth elements, many of which have strategic purposes. Rare in name only, these elements are anything but scarce as they are found all over the world. The challenge rare earth elements pose is during extraction, as they exist in low concentrations and are difficult to separate from one another.

January 21, 2020, 11:47 AM AEDT


error : cannot receive stock quote information