Some of Australia’s biggest trade unions will sign a historic agreement tomorrow (October 8) in north Queensland that extends formal recognition of social and cultural factors in wage negotiations for agreements relating to developments on Aboriginal land.
The strategic alliance, if extended to other land councils in mining states, could see unions increase their bargaining influence by leveraging strong relationships with tribal leaders and landowners in negotiations with mining companies for wider membership gains. It aims to provide better training and more meaningful employment opportunities for local Indigenous Australians.
“This is about re-positioning Aboriginal people, ensuring they are not intimidated by the powerful,” NQLC chair Terry O’Shane told Workforce Daily. “It’s a continuation of the Native Title process.”
The ‘ Social Compact‘ will be signed in Cairns, bringing together the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), Electrical Trades Union (ETU), Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), CFMEU-Mining and Energy and the North Queensland Land Council (NQLC).
The unions have agreed to involve the NQLC in negotiations on agreements relating to developments on Aboriginal land. “It means employment and training will be taken out of the compensation regime of Indigenous Land Use Agreements and similar negotiations and will be treated as a right,” O’Shane said. “We are now in partnership with unions in pursuit of social justice and this is just the first step,” he said,
O’Shane said the council had come up with the idea after hearing about a memorandum of understanding between Western Australia unions and the Kimberley Land Council signed two years ago. He said the Qld agreement extends the WA concept to a more permanent, broader formal relationship. The Compact laid out a whole new framework on how negotiations would take place, ensuring the impact of social, traditional and cultural arrangements were factored in, he said.
It also provided a valuable opportunity to fight the extremely high unemployment rate among indigenous Australians, O’Shane said.
Traditional owners missing out on benefits
MUA assistant national secretary Ian Bray told Workforce Daily the agreement had the potential to create real long-term benefits. He said the work between the unions and the NQLC had already started to have a “good impact” on the region, with many companies wanting to work co-operatively. But he said there were some companies who were fighting change.
Bray said it was time to take a stand for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (ATSI) “It has become increasingly obvious to ATSI and union leaders that many companies, including those that have enjoyed the benefits of Australia’s rich natural resources and assets, have done very little to genuinely advance the rights of and opportunities for the traditional owners of many of those resources and assets,” Bray said.
He said the new agreement ensured the traditional land-owners received a “fair share” of those benefits. “For 150 years unions have been the main agents for spreading the benefits of economic development across the community,” he said. “Through compacts such as this we hope to do a better job of spreading those benefits across ATSI communities and closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.”
‘Meaningful” and ‘skilled’ employment needed
ETU sec Peter Simpson said mining companies had historically done a poor job of providing meaningful and skilled employment for indigenous Australians, but this commitment would help change that. “Through this Compact we will be working to get more ATSI people into apprenticeships and trades and put a stop to the corporate practice of using ATSI people in unskilled roles as a means of meeting employment requirements on traditional lands,” Simpson said.
‘Guideline’ for relationship
O’Shane said he was not expecting a negative reaction from industry, once the long-term benefits and the structural processes of the plan were understood. “This will be a cost benefit them rather than an impost,” he said.
Bray agreed that once the agreement is explained properly, locals and companies would get behind the Compact. O’Shane said it was a “living document” and the signatories were open to suggestions for improvements, including from business.
The Compact will apply across all industries, but will have most impact in Qld’s $50bn mining and minerals processing industries, as well as tourism, forestry and fishing. It is expected it will provide a template for similar agreements across Qld and the rest of Australia. See full special report coverage including employer and industry comment in tomorrow’s Workforce.