Aboriginal people fighting against unemployment

Aboriginal women and children from Kalkaringi (Wave Hill), Northern Territory, in April. Photo: Paddy Gibson

In late April, activists from the Intervention Rollback Action Group (IRAG) toured several communities affected by the NT intervention. In particular, they looked at how employment patterns had changed.

The results were the same everywhere they went: This is as bad as it has ever been.

It has been almost three years since the former federal Coalition government announced the intervention into remote Aboriginal communities (which has continued under Labor). It has been three years of broken promises and declining living conditions for those the intervention was supposed to help.

The intervention “quarantined” payments to Aboriginal welfare recipients — 50% of their payments were put on “Basics Cards”, which could only be spent on approved goods at certain shops. The legislation required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The intervention was supposed to solve the long-highlighted housing and employment problems in Aboriginal communities. Much has been made of the fact the government’s $672 million housing program failed to build any houses (until earlier this year, when two were built). But little has been said about the increased unemployment the intervention has caused.

Mark Fordham, from the Ampilatwatja community, was a works manager with the local Community Development Employment Program (CDEP). He spoke on April 11 to IRAG activist Paddy Gibson about how the government — in particular Barkly Shire Council — had gutted employment prospects for Aboriginal people in Ampilatwatja.

Previously, Ampilatwatja had 15-20 workers as part of the CDEP program. They did basic municipal services and received CDEP wages: equivalent to Centrelink payments plus some top-up money.

Since the intervention, the workforce has been slashed to just two local workers: all other work is done by contractors. The way they are paid has also changed drastically.

“What we are not seeing is anyone getting paid a proper wage”, Fordham said. “They are still on their CDEP. The pay for CDEP these days happens through Centrelink, with half going on the Basics Card.

"The message is ‘go and get qualified and learn the skills, but there's no light at the end of the tunnel. You'll still just be paid with the Basics Card’."

Fordham said there were 80-100 work-eligible people in Ampilatwatja, and there was enough work to employ them — if the money could be found to fund it. Instead, people were expected to work for Centrelink payments. Meanwhile, outside contractors were working for $40-$70 an hour, Fordham said. The money is there, it is just not going to Aboriginal people.

IRAG also visited Wave Hill, the site of the historic 1966 walk-off by the Gurindji people. They went on strike demanding equal pay and conditions for Aboriginal cattle station workers employed by the British-owned Vestey’s corporation.

However, their struggle soon became a struggle for land rights.

The Gurindji people moved to live on their traditional lands at Daguragu (Wattie Creek). They demanded 500 square miles of their country be returned.

The strike lasted nine years, and their demand was ultimately met (although the area handed back was smaller than the original claim).

In 1975, then-prime minister Gough Whitlam finally granted the Gurindji people leasehold rights. In 1986, it was converted to a freehold lease.

The surviving members of the strike, including 87-year-old Jimmy Wave Hill, told IRAG it was time to fight again: working for the Basics Card was the same as working for rations.

They met Richard Downs, spokesperson for the Alyawarr people’s walk-off against the intervention. The Alyawarr people walked off Ampilatwatja in July last year and have maintained their protest camp ever since. Wave Hill said the walk-off had inspired his people to take a stand against the intervention.

Downs told Green Left Weekly: "They say they've lost everything they achieved since their walk-off [in 1966]. We sat down with the leaders and they said: ‘Look this isn't working’.

“It's wrong to tell our people that we can only work for the Basics Card. Meanwhile the government is just bringing in contractors to do the jobs."

Downs is also involved in organising Aboriginal people doing municipal work into unions to resist their exploitation. Dozens have joined the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union as a result. Unions have shown an increasing willingness to support Aboriginal people fighting the intervention.

In February, donations of tools, workers and money helped build a house at the Alyawarr people’s walk-off camp. Unions have supported speaking tours of leaders of affected communities, such as Downs and Yuendumu elder Harry Nelson.

Downs said he hoped the unions continued to support the campaign. He invited them to take part in the “Four Days in July” gathering in Alice Springs over July 6-9, which will bring people from intervention-affected communities across the NT — and their supporters from across the country — together to debate the next steps forward.

Downs said it was to Labor’s shame that it had continued the racist policies of the previous Coalition government.

"A better system would be to abolish the current intervention and reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act. Let’s … start again, with proper consultation”, he said.

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