Aboriginal workers demand jobs with justice

Sunday, June 6, 2010
End the intervention rally, Sydney, February. Photo: Peter Boyle

Hundreds of Aboriginal workers in the Northern Territory are demanding real wages for construction work that they are compelled to do under “Work for the dole” schemes.

Eighty rallied on June 2 outside state parliament house in Darwin to demand jobs with justice.

Elders from Kalkaringi community say people in their community are being forced to work for up to 30 hours a week on construction sites or they will have their Centrelink payments cut.

As if being forced to work for the dole wasn’t bad enough, half their benefits are also “quarantined”: placed onto a Basics Card that can be spent only on food, clothing and medical supplies.

Before the introduction of the Northern Territory intervention, Community Development and Employment Projects were generally community-controlled. CDEP workers received welfare payments plus “top-up” money, like wages, which provided an incentive to work.

As part of the intervention, the scheme has been altered to enable CDEP payments to be quarantined like other Centrelink benefits. There is no more top-up, and workers can be thrown off their benefit if they don’t work.

Many CDEP workers now have the responsibilities, and almost the same hours, as full-time workers — but they don’t have the pay, conditions and security of full-time workers.

There have been instances of government business managers (installed under the intervention, as part of an attempt to disempower community councils) posting signs on public noticeboards that list people who must report for work or face having their benefits cut.

The Gurindji people at Kalkaringi are particularly outraged at being forced to work for the Basics Card. Kalkaringi was the site of the famous Wave Hill walk-off and strike. In 1966, Aboriginal cattle workers were being paid in rations. Gurindji men and women walked off the cattle station in protest.

They demanded equal wages and later broadened their campaign to demand their traditional lands be handed back.

The walk-off was the impetus for the equal wages decision that year, which forced the cattle industry to pay real wages to Aboriginal stockworkers in the NT, who made up most of the pastoral industry’s labour.

The struggle also created the first land rights legislation, passed in 1975.

Surviving Wave Hill strikers say the NT intervention has taken people back to the ration days. Gurindji elder Kathy Mills said the intervention, supposedly introduced to stop child abuse and neglect, was “an invasion of laws, a tool of dispossession and inequality”, the ABC said on June 2.

Kalkaringi worker Peter Inverway told the Darwin rally: “I was working on [a] construction site. Working hard for up to 30 hours per week and maybe just getting $4 an hour on Basics Card. But just like working for ration like our people done in the past. If we don't work then they'll cut our Centrelink."

Inverway said he and his colleagues were working up to 30 hours a week for only $195 in cash and Basics Cards, and could barely afford to feed their families.

Australian Council of Trade Unions Indigenous committee chairperson Kara Touchie told the rally situations like this were common across the NT. “This, as far as we are concerned, is a serious breach of workers' rights and we will do everything in our power to back up these workers”, she said.

Touchie pledged union support for bringing the wage standard up to that of other workers. Unions have been touring Aboriginal communities throughout the NT, recruiting people to the campaign for real jobs.

Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin said on June 2 that she would investigate the claims, and that people in CDEP programs should be working only 16 hours a week for $250.

On May 2, her department released its plans for Aboriginal employment, which called for greater "market measures" to provide for Aboriginal people, with the government stepping in only when the market fails.

A May 24 report from Macklin’s office, the Indigenous Home Ownership Issues Paper, also pushed for more welfare payments to be dependent on “earning or learning” activities by Aboriginal people. This could mean, for example, payments may be cut to parents whose children often missed school.

Many of the policies that make up the intervention have come under fire from welfare groups and health professionals. In May, the Menzies School of Health Research found — after an extensive survey — that there was no evidence that welfare quarantining had improved the health of those affected. In fact, there was much evidence that it had driven health outcomes backward.

Organisers of the June 2 Darwin rally told Green Left Weekly that Macklin's response was hypocritical: her department had been told on several occasions that people were working under these conditions.

They said infrastructure development throughout the NT was relying on the cheap labour provided by the new CDEP scheme.

[Peter Inverway is touring the east coast in June. Visit stoptheintervention.org for details.]

From GLW issue 840