The government’s strategy to boost Aboriginal workforce participation in remote communities means that Northern Australian businesses will be able to exploit free Aboriginal labour.
In December last year, the government announced that all able-bodied Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 18 to 49 who were unemployed would be required to work for their welfare payments for five hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year.
This policy change came out of the Forrest Review, which finally discovered there was no mainstream labour market in most remote Aboriginal communities. Since there are insufficient jobs in remote communities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will be forced into “work-like” activities in the community for 25 hours a week.
Workers will not receive a training/apprenticeship wage but the government will pay businesses for keeping Aboriginal workers at the end of their placement.”
Of course, work for the dole is not new to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) was by far the single most important and longest running program assisting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It helped people gain work skills and employment and was widely regarded as the most successful work for the dole program.
The original objective of the CDEP, which was introduced in 1977 as an alternative to receiving welfare payments, was to create local, meaningful employment opportunities in remote Aboriginal communities where there was not much employment on offer. The CDEP program helped Aboriginal job seekers gain the skills, training and capabilities needed to find sustainable employment and improved the economic and social well-being of communities.
Two-thirds of CDEP participants were located in remote Australia and this program contributed to halving the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal employment within a decade.
Former Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner Bill Jonas says the first CDEP scheme was started at Bamyili as an alternative to “sit down money”. CDEP was an Aboriginal alternative, proposed by Aboriginal people and not a solution imposed on Aboriginal people by governments.
He said: “The CDEP scheme enhances the economic, social and cultural rights of Indigenous peoples”.
The ACTU said: “Australian Unions believe Work for the Dole is a punitive scheme that targets vulnerable workers and forces them into labour for below the minimum wage. Unions are calling to end discriminatory employment practices for Indigenous workers and ensure workers are paid the legal minimum wages and benefits, such as superannuation and annual leave. 2399 Aboriginal workers were moved onto welfare after the Abbott Government scrapped the CDEP program.”
We know the chance of finding mainstream employment in remote Australia is limited, owing to geographic isolation. Professor Jon Altman believes that economic development is the only way the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in rural and remote Australia can be actively employed in “real jobs”.
Altman said: “Indigenous development policy faces the complex task of balancing the often incompatible goals of socioeconomic equality for Indigenous peoples and the recognition of … choice and self-determination for first Australians.”
Balancing these goals appears to be beyond the capacity of Australian governments, which all embrace the principles of neoliberalism, individalism and unfettered economic growth.
There is evidence on what works and what does not work in assisting unemployed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to obtain and retain jobs. The government is obliged to act on this evidence in the design of labour market program policy.
But the gap in employment outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people is widening. Why should this be? The government is supposedly making every effort to close this gap. But issues arising from the Indigenous Advancement strategy have already placed doubts about the government’s commitment to close the gap.
Government policy is key to closing the gap on labour market disadvantage. However, these programs have failed to produce results. This can be attributed to the government ignoring the dominant political philosophy in Indigenous affairs — self-determination.
Most labour market programs have an Anglo-centric focus as opposed to Aboriginal-centric and are “flawed by a whiteness view”. Policies constructed from a Western mindset do not adequately represent or understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities or culture. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is holistic and does not fall into the types of programs that are available.
Australians are not all alike. We share a history but our roles in that shared history are very different, based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and nationality. This fixation on being one homogeneous group generally results in those who are non-white being pressured to assimilate as fully as possible, giving up our cultural identities and accepting the culture of the white majority. This can be seen in government policies.
It’s not new for the government to test new “practices” on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
The NT intervention is a classic example of this, where income management was forced on remote communities, taking away their rights to spend their welfare money where and how they needed to. This was then expanded and extended to other areas of Australia. Successive governments have used Aboriginal communities as experiments. This is unacceptable.
Neoliberal policies and programs do not adequately address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and economic issues. They do not contribute to self-determination and will not succeed in “closing the gap”.
For labour market programs to succeed they must be Aboriginal-centric and be based on the practice of self-determination. They must provide “real paid jobs”, in Aboriginal-run services that fulfil the needs of Aboriginal communities.
[Sharlene Leroy-Dyer is an Aboriginal Academic at the University of Newcastle and a member of Socialist Alliance. Sharlene’s research centres around Labour Market Programs and employment practices involving Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples.]