Aboriginal housing program exploits Aboriginal workers

Aboriginal workers are being paid ‘next to nothing’ to build houses for their people, under the federal government’s housi

Aboriginal workers in the government’s $672 million Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) are working for what amounts to half the dole plus rations. However, these workers are still being recorded as contributing to SIHIP meeting its employment target, Crickey.com.au said.

SIHIP is the housing project announced by the federal government in 2008. The project was to provide much needed housing for Aboriginal populations in remote areas of the Northern Territory.

An NT auditor-general’s report into SIHIP, released in June, said only seven new houses had been built under the scheme. SIHIP has a target of building 750 new homes by 2013, but the report said it was likely to reach only half this target.

SIHIP also had a target of 30% Aboriginal employment in the scheme, but Aboriginal workers claim that much of this is on the new work-for-the-quarantined-dole arrangements as part of the federal ALP government’s reformed Community Development Employment Programs (CDEP).

Previously, CDEP was a community-controlled employment program that offered training and work for people on welfare. It also offered “top-up money” as a supplement to welfare for those who worked. The ALP’s reforms to CDEP have removed community control and top-up money, making CDEP identical to work for the dole in other areas.

Moreover, the new CDEP also allows payments to be “quarantined” using the Basics Card, meaning 50% of payments can be spent on only food, clothing and medical supplies in shops where the card is accepted.

Aboriginal people have called this system “a return to the ration days”, when Aboriginal workers were paid in flour and sugar.

ALP Senator Mark Arbib, who oversees SIHIP, responded to a question in parliament from Greens Senator Rachel Siewert on November 17 about what wages were paid to Aboriginal workers on the scheme and how many workers there were.

Arbib said: “There are currently 323 Indigenous employees making up over 30% of the SIHIP workforce. That exceeds our Indigenous employment target by 10%. These people are doing real work for real wages. Whether they are on CDEP doing work experience or receiving income support, all people working on SIHIP are paid at least award wages.”

But workers in the project disagree.

Sheldon Stuart from Amoonguna community, about 20km south of Alice Springs, told Crikey.com.au he was part of SIHIP. He said he was only paid his Newstart allowance and that half of this was on the Basics Card.



Sheldon told Crikey.cpm.au: "We started around June. We patched all the walls, patched the ceiling, painted the walls, painted the floor. We did everything in there.

"We'd start at eight and knock off at about 3.30. We did that for three-four months.

"When we first got paid, there was $300 on top of our Centrelink every fortnight. Then the top-up just started going down and down and then went out completely. It was just working for the dole. I was on the Basics Card too. It was a complete rip off."

Scott McConnell, the general manager of Aboriginal resource group Ingkerreke, backed this claim.

“These guys ended up working on the sites for CDEP, then any extra hours were paid directly by New Future Alliance.

"Because it was a flexible arrangement and they weren't getting paid properly, some people were treating it like it wasn't a job. Others were really putting in and trying to learn. Some would work for three days, be promised top-up and then find out that they weren't getting any — they were just getting the dole anyway.

“Yet [Community Enterprises Australia, which administers CDEP in the Macdonnell region] have got these guys working on sites alongside us, doing the same work but getting paid next to nothing.

"If they'd done it properly, there could have been five or six people at Santa Teresa working for Ingkerreke for at least $25 an hour, up to 10 hours a day, 13 days in a fortnight. Our organisation is very concerned about this practice. There's no way that you would have a white fella getting paid on a Basics Card working on a $672 million construction program."

Siewert commented on Arbib’s response: “One of the other issues here, of course, is that the people who are working on these jobs are still being income quarantined. Here you have Aboriginal people who are supposedly in real jobs, but they are still getting income quarantined. What is that all about?

“It is no wonder Aboriginal people get so discouraged when again they see the promise of real jobs disappearing for more CDEP training, more exploitation, people not getting paid for the work they do and working alongside people who are getting paid full, proper wages.

“The government has told us time and time again that they are creating real jobs, but the minister could not tell me how many out of that 30% were real jobs. That is unacceptable.”