'It's like working for rations all over again'

March 6, 2010

Changes to Aboriginal employment, infrastructure and welfare programs have stripped remote Aboriginal communities of resources and left many Aboriginal people, in effect, working for rations.

On February 10, 40 people from the remote Ampilatwatja Aboriginal community held a meeting at the walk-off protest camp to discuss the infrastructure and employment situation on their community, which is a "prescribed area" under the Northern Territory intervention.

They met with representatives of Unions NT, the Liquor Hospitality Miscellaneous Workers Union and the Electrical Trades Union, who were part of a union brigade to build a house at the protest camp.

Ampilatwatja gained international attention in 2009 when, after years of territory and federal government neglect, the sewage pipes broke and flooded onto the streets. The elders of the community responded by setting up a protest camp on their lands but outside the "prescribed area". The protest camp was a response to the physical degradation of the community and the damage the government's racist policies had done to the dignity of the community.

Under the intervention policies introduced in 2007, everyone on welfare in the 73 targeted communities, including Ampilatwatja, had half their income replaced with a Basics Card. Money on the Basics Card can only be spent on food, clothing and medical supplies, and only in government-approved stores.

For many of the elders, who worked for years on cattle stations, this was a big insult. But the program has had other effects as well.

Before the intervention started in 2007, the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) allowed Aboriginal people on unemployment benefits to increase their income by working — largely on projects of benefit to the community.

This paid workers for projects such as support staff for art centres, basic rubbish collection, translation services for schools and other community work.

While the work was underpaid — it was only a supplement to Centrelink payments — it did provide a much-needed stopgap in the absence of government or business providing real wages for the same work.

Now under the intervention, or "interference" as one contractor in the town called it, Aboriginal people can be required to work for the Basics Card. Under the old CDEP system, businesses and communities would pay out money for CDEP projects, thus keeping the projects under local control and more free from government interference.

Under the intervention, all projects have now come under federal government control. Those working on them will only receive basic Centrelink payments, 50% of which will be on the Basic Card for people living in the "prescribed areas".

Talking about the reality of work for Aboriginal people in the prescribed areas, Alyawarr elder Banjo Morton told Green Left Weekly: "It's like working for rations all over again."

Those on the projects can have their income docked by $50 if the government-appointed business managers decide that they haven't contributed enough. There is now no limit to the amount of overtime that can be imposed on workers under the new "CDEP". People at the meeting said that workers are working up to 40 hours a week for a Centrelink payment, half of which is on the Basics Card.

CDEP workers doing NT public service work lobbied through the Australian Education Union to get their jobs turned into real employment.

But, so far, of the hundreds of Aboriginal people working as teachers' aides, bus drivers, literacy advisors and translators, only 16 properly paid jobs have been created.

The lack of community consultation has also led to projects chosen by government agencies that communities do not need and have not asked for.

At Ampilatwatja, the community wanted a grass football field. Before the intervention, they could have used CDEP workers to build it. Instead, the federal government flew in Queensland contractors to build a BMX bike track. It stands grassed over and unused, with steel poles poking up through the mounds of dirt to this day.

The situation is made worse by council amalgamations — that have reduced local control over public works projects — and the NT government's "hub town" policy.

This policy, announced in May 2009, will provide new housing to only 20 towns out of the more than 500 communities and homelands in the NT. Sixty of these have populations of more than 100 and many have more than 400 residents. Only the "hub towns" are to receive new housing and the costing for building houses in these towns is dependent on the slave-like payments to CDEP workers.

Community control over development would be a part of any strategy that was genuinely aimed at closing the gap in living standards between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Instead, NT and federal governments are taking resources, control and funds away from those who most need them.

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