By Reconciliation Australia CEO Leah Armstrong

Historically Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have been marginalized from many economic activities including the opportunity of meaningful paid employment. The current unemployment rate for Australia’s First Peoples remains substantially higher than that of other Australians.

For those of us charged with the job of promoting reconciliation and improving the social and economic conditions of Australia’s First Peoples this presents an ongoing challenge. For if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are excluded from meaningful paid employment they will fail to accrue the housing, health and social inclusion benefits that come with employment. The correlation between ill-health and unemployment is well researched and accepted.

How does Australia realistically close the gap in health and education if our First Peoples are unable to gain employment?

Reconciliation Australia’s approach is based on three premises; relationships, respect and opportunities all of which are embodied in our main program of Reconciliation Action Plans. RAPs, adopted by private corporations, NGOs and government agencies are about building respect, creating relationships and grasping opportunities to support practical benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including significant employment opportunities.

Leah speaks at the 2013 annual breakfast celebrating the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian of the Year finalists.

Through the commitments made by our more than 350 RAP partners the RAP program is facilitating the creation of many thousands of jobs, in industries that are not historically employers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people while concurrently creating the necessary cultural changes in thousands of Australian workplaces that make these jobs sustainable.

Our web-based Workplace Ready Program toolkit and the recently released Everybody’s Business: A Handbook for Indigenous Employment, developed as a collaboration between ourselves, GenerationOne and Social Ventures Australia, are both aimed at building sustainability in First Peoples’ employment.

We recently published research which demonstrates that our RAP program is having a profound impact on building positive relationships between Australia’s First Peoples and other Australians, and consequently aiding efforts to close the disparity gap, including the employment gap.

Leah visits Martumili Artists, a finalist in the 2012 Indigenous Governance Awards (IGA) in Newman, WA. Image by Wayne Quilliam.

The Reconciliation Action Plan Impact Measurement Report 2012 shows that the Australian organisations with a RAP employ nearly 19,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well as indirectly supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment by purchasing around $58 million of services from certified Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses and contributing more than $15m towards educational scholarships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

More than just creating job opportunities, though, RAPs help develop a workplace culture that is supportive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers thereby allowing RAP organisations to keep their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees.

Our research found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers and other employees in RAP organisations have much higher levels of trust between each other than the general community (71 per cent compared to 13 per cent); are far less prejudiced (9 per cent compared to 70 per cent); and have greater pride in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures (77 per cent compared to 51 per cent).

Significantly, 95 per cent of surveyed employees in RAP organisations believe the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous staff is good compared with 46 per cent in the general community.

Aunty Matilda House with Leah at the RAP showcase event in Canberra. Image by Cole Bennetts.

Without strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the workforce Australia will continue to be diminished and the country’s economic and social potential will not be reached.