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Aboriginal workers still slipping through the gaps



When I was about 16 years old, my father took myself and my siblings to an exhibition on the Stolen Generations entitled Between Two Worlds. Though I had grown up knowing about the Stolen Generations, it was the first time I truly connected that my grandmother Emily Liddle (nee Perkins) was a part of it.

Cartoon by Chris JohnstonI always knew she had been taken; that was well understood. What I didn't understand until that exhibition was what she had been through and what being a member of the Stolen Generations meant. Though my grandmother passed away several years ago now, her audio account procured for this exhibition has been preserved online, so I can hear her story again at the click of a button.

Back then, the most shocking thing to me about her account was hearing that her and the other girls at Jay Creek Mission slept on hard concrete floors with just a couple of blankets for comfort.

Later on, as I became more active in workers' rights and heard about the continued campaign to retrieve Stolen Wages, my focus shifted to her 'education' while in the mission. As she describes, her and the other girls were trained in domestic skills then were eventually given to wealthy white families to serve as mostly unpaid servants.

This was not uncommon. All over the country, Aboriginal people were forced into labour. In most cases the majority of their wages were held in government trusts, never to be seen again. According to what I have heard from family, my grandmother was treated well by the family she worked for, yet this does not make what happened to her and so many other Aboriginal workers right.

While other people in this country have inherited wealth from their forebears, Aboriginal people are still fighting to receive payments from decades ago. This goes part of the way to explaining why so many remain in poverty.

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Wave Hill Walk Off, along with the 70th anniversary of the Pilbara Strike. Last week also marked the 66th anniversary of the Darwin Strikes. In all three instances, Aboriginal workers were paid a pittance, if at all, and many were abused. Aboriginal women were often sexually exploited by white masters and workers with resultant children taken off them by authorities.

In the case of Pilbara, tea and tobacco seemed to be the going rate for labour. Meanwhile, the Darwin Strikes are notable in these press clippings because while there was support for the Aboriginal workers from the NAWU, this union was not able to bail out arrested strikers because these workers were under the guardianship of the Territory and their employers.


"It would be nice to think that free Aboriginal labour is firmly rooted in the shame of the past and as a nation, we have moved forward ... but the exploitation of the most vulnerable in our community continues."


Wave Hill, of course, is more well-known among the general Australian public because of the iconic photo of Gough Whitlam pouring sand into the hand of Vincent Lingiari, and the Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly song 'From Little Things Big Things Grow'.

In all three cases there was collaboration between unions and Aboriginal workers. Among other actions, the Seamen's Union of Australia put a black ban on shipping wool from the Pilbara region during that strike. During Wave Hill, union members paid a levy to ensure the Gurindji had supplies and could raise awareness of their actions. Along with other gains from these actions, the right to pay Aboriginal people less and hold their wages in trusts was chipped away at until eventually, as late as 1986, the Queensland Government agreed to equal wages for Aboriginal people working on missions.

It would be nice to think that free Aboriginal labour is firmly rooted in the shame of the past and as a nation, we have moved forward. Yet in 2015, the Federal Government decided to roll out the 'Community Development Program' (CDP) in remote areas of the country. The CDP is a remote Work for the Dole program and has been widely condemned; not just by the Australian Council of Trade Unions but also by recent Jobs Australia report which shows how harmful it is. People engaged in the Community Development Program are required to work 25 hours per week year round for only their Centrelink payments and if they fail to comply, they can be cut off. Reports show a community-wide decline in purchase and consumption of fresh food as participants are cut off from their payments leaving other impoverished family members more financially-stretched.

Not only do government placements form part of the work these community members can be engaged in, but private enterprises are also eligible to become CDP providers. This essentially means that businesses have the ability to profiteer off free labour.

The government has repeatedly claimed how the CDP is not discriminatory program using the justification that not only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are engaged in it. However, in the regions where CDP operates, about 83 per cent of the unemployed people are Indigenous. It is therefore targeted, and the fact that it resides in the Indigenous Affairs portfolio proves the point.

In addition, it is telling that a number of these placements revolve around work which anywhere else in the country would be covered under basic community services such as council services and would therefore attract a proper wage. What incentive is there for governments to properly fund remote councils to employ Aboriginal workers if they can simply engage these people for free? What incentive is there for private enterprises to hire Indigenous workers if they can continue to profiteer off an endless pool of Indigenous labour?

The years may have ticked over, but the government's attitude to the value of Indigenous workers has not. Indigenous workers of previous generations struggled and undertook strike actions so that their descendants would not be exploited and abused in the same way that they had been. While we may have many more Aboriginal people achieving and attracting higher waged work than we did in the years gone by, the exploitation of the most vulnerable in our community continues. And though the union movement is determined to take a stand and ensure that Indigenous workers receive proper working payments and entitlements, a good portion of the country continues to turn a blind eye. It is through this social complicity that we ensure the wealth gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is doomed to remain a gaping chasm for a long time to come.


Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne, the National Indigenous Organiser of the NTEU, and a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

This is the latest article in our ongoing series on work.

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, Stolen Generations, Unions, work



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Existing comments

Thank you Celeste for telling the story of "social complicity" that ensures the continuation of ALL the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. That social complicity thrives on ignorance, sometimes a wilful ignorance that must be countered by informed commentaries of this nature and by better political leadership.

Peter Johnstone | 04 December 2016  

Molly Ingram. NSW Commissioner for Aboriginal Affairs (an Aboriginal woman) in an address to the College of Surgeons committee investigating health and domestic violence in society at large, said that the trial of work for the dole when first introduced in five remote Aboriginal communities lead to a general increase in personal dignity and pride in achievement. This was accompanied by a fall in alcohol consumption along with a fall in domestic violence of up to 60%. That beats the daylight out of dependency payment which can lead only to despair in the long run. Tragically, many mistakes have been made in the often well-intentioned efforts of governments to help our Aboriginal people, the greatest of which perhaps was the breeding of the payback mentality which has lead to dependency. Aboriginal pride can only be restored by the pride of independence not the depression of dependence or the promise of fleeting monetary compensation. Compensation should rightly be made but requires first the establishment of a stable base on which to apply it, by and for the good of the Aboriginal people. Otherwise nothing will be achieved along with the efforts of the last 200 odd years.

john frawley | 04 December 2016  

Great article Celeste, and great to see Eureka Street publishing this. I've never understood why the CDEP (CDP) program exists -- if there's work for people to do, why aren't they paid the right rates for it?

Susan | 04 December 2016  

Thank you Celeste for continuing energy in educating and engaging the wider community with you knowledge and understanding. I had the honour of knowing Emily and her Father and have continued to be impressed by you efforts and passion. The fruit doesn't fall too far from the tree. Thank you.

Jim Barritt | 04 December 2016  

Cultures and languages are responses to perceived realities. When these realities change, cultures and languages need to adapt to reflect these changes. When these cultures have evolved over many tens of thousands of years, adaption to relatively new changed circumstances will be difficult, as the Austrian Jesuits found when they tried to work with the Aboriginals. They themselves showed the same limitations when they thought Sevenhill would be an ideal centre for a Capital, being used to landlocked Capitals in Continental Europe, and learning nothing from cities like London and New York. Australian Governments have shown little realisation about how to improve the situation, and need a lot of help and cooperation to improve their game.

Robert Liddy | 04 December 2016  

Celeste, Thank you! Today, I attended the NDS CEO Meeting and listened to the Welcome to Country address by Ron (? sorry but I've left a message with your council) who talked about this matter. May I add that people with a disability also have the same issue with Australian culture and industrial law. John

John Morkham | 05 December 2016  

Celeste you are a breath of fresh air. I love your truth telling and 'no flinch' words. I know many of your family members - all remarkable members of the Arrernte nation. Respect

Robyn Williams | 09 December 2016  

This is a great overview of the shameful treatment of Aboriginal workers by many exploitative Australian employers in the past. Don McLeod, a unionist, left wing Aboriginal solidarity activist and the unions in the Pilbara also led strikes to gain better pay for Aboriginal workers in the late 1940s. I think the major problem that we have today is that the most greedy and powerful employers who subscribe to neoliberal capitalism want to drastically cut wages and conditions for all workers whether they be Aboriginal or not. And many of the big corporations don't get their way will close their industries in Australia and other western nations and move offshore to developing countries where they will exploit ordinary workers and the environment even more. This process of course started many years ago and is getting worse. There needs to be global solidarity of the international union movement to ensure that all workers, no matter where they are, receive adequate pay and safe and healthy working conditions.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 11 January 2017  

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