A private Top-End construction company is a glowing example of the benefits of employing Indigenous labour.

Story By David Hancock

From the moment he arrived at Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island, in north-east Arnhem Land, Michael Martin was right at home. “I felt so welcome and straight away I clicked with the Yolngu people,” Michael says. “I loved working with them during the week and going hunting and fishing with them on weekends.”
A building contractor, Michael worked with an Indigenous workforce to maintain, renovate, and build community housing. After five years at Elcho he moved to Maningrida to work on construction at homeland centres – small satellite settlements outside larger Indigenous communities of the region.
Now, after 22 years in Arnhem Land, Michael heads up Deltareef Pty Ltd, a private housing construction-and-maintenance company, one of the largest employers of Indigenous workers in eastern Arnhem Land. Based at Nhulunbuy, Deltareef has recently formed an alliance with two other Gove companies – East Arm Civil and Djerrkura Enterprises – to bid for housing construction work under the Federal and Northern Territory governments' Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP), worth more than $650 million in the Territory and approximately $17 million in the Nhulunbuy region.
Indigenous participation and training is a prerequisite of SIHIP; the hope is that when the program is finished there will be qualified Aboriginal tradespeople who can generate long-term prosperity and benefits for communities.
“The government has recognised and will reward companies that develop, train and employ Indigenous people; I have always tried to have an Indigenous crew and tried my darndest to help Yolngu people get some skills and get into the workforce,” Michael says. “It’s a policy I have personally upheld since I arrived in Arnhem Land.”
Damien Djerrkura, a leading trainer of indigenous people in East Arnhem Land and a Yolgnu man with more than 15 years in the building industry, is one of the partners with Michael and East Arm Civil in the SIHIP contract.
“Michael has worked in many remote communities in north-east Arnhem Land,” Damien says. “There are a number of community councils that employ Indigenous workers but Michael is the only [private] bloke out there who tries hard to employ a local labour force. He puts his own money into employing apprentices and turns out skilled Indigenous tradesmen. He has developed a good reputation over the years and has the respect of Yolgnu people.”
Back in the 1980s, Michael found one of the drawbacks of employing Yolngu workers was their family and ceremonial commitments. “A lot of Yolngu ... have grown up knowing that ceremony is first and foremost and our urgent timelines are hard to understand,” he says. “I believe that both these things are important but if their concern for ceremony is lost then the world will be poorer for it. Somehow you have to mesh the two.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #66

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2009