Why Ochre Workforce Solutions founder Joanne Pellew believes indigenous employment policies need to go beyond good intentions

A Western Australian small business owner says more needs to be done by chambers of commerce to give employment opportunities to indigenous people.

Joanne Pellew founded Ochre Workforce Solutions in 2010 after her work as an indigenous engagement advisor for a mining company made her aware of how many indigenous people were losing job opportunities to labour-hire companies.

“My role was to engage with indigenous people in the community who we kept a database of. We were awarded a $100 million dollar contract based on all the indigenous people we had waiting in the wings for employment,” Pellew told SmartCompany.

“We won the contract but the indigenous people weren’t employed. I was told they couldn’t get them work ready, and it was easier to just outsource the work to a labour hire company.”

Pellew decided to start her own indigenous labour hire company and Ochre Workforce Solutions was born. To date, the business has placed over 900 indigenous Australians into jobs and turned over $6 million in revenue last year.

In 2012, Pellew diversified and the business became a Registered Training Organisation (RTO). She is the only indigenous woman in Western Australia to own an RTO license.

“I’ve had no support from the government, I’ve just had to go do it myself, but I’ve seen the benefits my hard work brings,” she says.

“A lot of companies haven’t been able to diversify enough but we’ve stayed one step ahead. I’m a ‘never give up’ sort of person.”

Pellew also founded indigenous job seeking website iWork last year to provide companies with an opportunity to hire indigenous workers even if they don’t have the budget for labour hire.

However, Pellew is critical of government initiatives to encourage companies to hire more indigenous workers, saying there are a “multitude of issues, culminating in the perfect storm”.

She believes one of these issues is the implementation of the Reconciliation Action Plans (RAP) that companies can submit to independent not-for-profit organisation Reconciliation Australia, to let them display what Pellew calls “a wish list” for indigenous employment.

“These documents have a lot of good intent on how much employment they want to bring in, and company cultural awareness programs, but they’re a tokenistic gesture,” she says.

“If any of these plans were monitored or companies held accountable, there wouldn’t be an indigenous employment problem. There’d be no gap to close.”

“There’s good intent but no way of implementing that intention. It needs to be accountable and reportable and actionable.”

Chambers of Commerce should lead the charge

According to 2011 figures from Australian Bureau of Statistics, indigenous Australians aged between 15-64 were 20% less likely to be participating in the labour force compared to non-indigenous people of the same age.

Similarly, ABS data from 2014-2015 showed indigenous people aged between 15-24 have significantly higher unemployment rates compared to non-indigenous people. Thirty one percent of indigenous Australians in that age bracket were classified as unemployed, compared to 16.7% of non-indigenous Australians in the same age bracket.

Pellew believes each state’s chamber of commerce and industry (CCI) could play a greater role in improving these statistics by requiring their members to hire indigenous people.

“If CCIWA [the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Western Australia] said to businesses, ‘you have to employ one indigenous person per company to be registered with us’, it would create 10,000 jobs overnight,” she says.

“This needs to happen for CCI bodies in every state, but no one’s brave enough to have these conversations with their membership groups.

“The state governments need to put the pressure back on businesses.”

Pellew is also critical of the methods for choosing businesses that receive funding or grants from governments for indigenous employment programs.

She believes more focus should be put on employment results, rather than good intentions.

“Organisations keep getting funding based on their intentions rather than their track record,” she says.

“The government needs to go back and look at the outcomes the organisation has achieved.”

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