The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has launched the First Nations Workers' Alliance to represent the 30,000 participants in the federal government’s Community Development Program (CDP), most of whom are Aboriginal people.
The move followed a resolution adopted by the ACTU executive authorising all means at its disposal to be mobilised towards dismantling the program. The resolution will kick-start the exploration of legal and legislative challenges to the program, as well as the mobilisation of campaign resources.
Under the program, unemployed people from the overwhelmingly Indigenous populations of remote communities are forced to work 25 hours a week to receive welfare payments. This is up to three times longer than city-based unemployed people need to work.
It is punitive, heavy-handed and racially discriminatory and the union movement wants to see it removed. ACTU Indigenous Officer Kara Keys said: "We believe it's racially discriminatory when above 80% of workers in this scheme are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander."
CDP participants are not classified as workers. They are paid well below the minimum wage — the dole pays $11.60 an hour or $290 a week — for working for 25 hours a week for non-profit and for-profit businesses.
They are not covered by the Fair Work Act, they do not have federal workplace health and safety protections or workers compensation and they cannot take annual leave, sick leave or carer’s leave. They earn no superannuation.
The CDP has also been labelled harsh and overly punitive over the hundreds of thousands of penalties for “non-compliance” with the program. The penalties, which can cut off payments for eight weeks, are issued at 20 times the rate of non-remote Work for the Dole participants. Fines for missing activities under CDP — which covers a tiny fraction of the population — account for more than half the total penalties across the entire welfare system.
CDP participants can spend up to six months in a workplace, which the government describes as a "long-term work experience opportunity". In reality, Keys said, the government has "created a pool of free labour for employers to access". Since the program began in July 2015, fewer than 3500 Indigenous participants have found full-time or part-time work lasting six months or more.
ACTU secretary Sally McManus said: “People are working, some of them in jobs for which they were once paid award wages and often for for-profit companies. The employers are getting CDP workers for free.
“How can it be that some people in Australia have to work 52 weeks a year for $10 an hour, and then other people who aren’t in rural and remote areas don’t?
“And then out of the people in the program, 85% are Indigenous. Does it need to be 100% before we say it’s racist?"
Keys said: “The ACTU looks forward to a future in which all Australian workers are treated equally, Indigenous people are not treated as second-class workers and are given the same opportunities and rights at work that any Australian worker rightfully expects.”