The stolen wages that continue to hold indigenous Australians back


Celeste Liddle

Fred Edwards, who worked on a cattle stations for many years, either underpaid or unpaid.

Fred Edwards, who worked on a cattle stations for many years, either underpaid or unpaid.

"A fair day's pay for a fair day's work". It's a phrase that often burns in my mind as a reminder that we can never take the right to be paid for our labour for granted. As a unionist, it is a constant slogan I see adorning placards at picket lines worldwide. As an Aboriginal worker, it has a particular resonance.

We are still, to this day, fighting for the return of "stolen wages" for generations of Aboriginal workers whose pay, up until the 1970s, was held in government trusts never to be seen again. Compensation schemes thus far have fallen well short of the estimated amount due to these workers. Stolen wages are additionally thought to be a key contributor to the intergenerational poverty which still plagues many of our communities, as previous generations were denied the right to generate wealth and livelihood. I never stop feeling lucky that I can earn now a decent wage when so many of my forebears were denied this very basic right due to their Aboriginal status.

Yet, unfortunately, it appears that governments of today are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. Since July 2015, unemployed people in remote areas defined by the government – 84 per cent of whom are Indigenous – have been subject to the so-called Commonwealth Development Program (CDP). A specific remote "work for the dole" program, the CDP requires that people work five days per week for five hours per day year-round in order to receive their unemployment payment. This is distinct from other Work for the Dole schemes which require 15 hours per week for a period of 6 months for people aged 30-49. In Melbourne, a 25 hour-per-week commitment would be considered a part-time job, subject to proper wages and conditions.

A good portion of the CDP work placements are within local and state government, such as councils and schools, undertaking roles which would, in most parts of the country, be provided by mainly government organisations as a basic standard of living for local residents. Continually in remote Indigenous Australia, basic services which other Australians take for granted are seen as a reward or a gift for compliance.


It gets worse. Private enterprises have the ability to apply to become CDP providers, essentially being given the green light by the government to draw on a pool of free labour in order to generate profits. In an amendment bill currently before the Federal Senate, the government wishes to pass over the responsibility of payment of unemployment benefits to these various CDP providers rather than continuing to administer them centrally through the Department of Human Services. This gives providers an inordinate amount of power to remove entitlements from participants for perceived "non-compliance". 

In their Wages 4 Work campaign, the Australian Council of Trade Unions additionally highlights that welfare recipients engaged under the CDP program are not entitled to superannuation, nor are they eligible to access workers' compensation. The available avenues for support and recourse for participants should anything go wrong are therefore almost non-existent.

With all this in mind, I fail to see how this program will have any impact in engaging remote unemployed people, the majority of whom are Indigenous, in ongoing employment. If a private business is going to be able to profiteer using labour it doesn't have to pay, where is the incentive for that business to provide proper employment opportunities within the community? If governments can cover all the basic community services without putting people on the pay roll, what is the likelihood of them ever properly resourcing these communities with the services they require?

The idea that mainly Aboriginal people from some of the most impoverished communities in the country are available to provide free labour shows that attitudes towards Aboriginal people and their worth as workers remains frozen in time. Rather than closing any gaps, such programs seek to reinforce disparities.

The fight for payment and the right to proper conditions for workers has a long history in this country. Due to it, we enjoy some of the best conditions in the world. Yet running parallel to this is a history of the exploitation of Indigenous labour which, if we are indeed trying to end disparity, we should not be repeating. Twenty five hours per week is work, particularly if people are able to profit from it, and it needs to be protected and compensated as such. 

A fair day's pay for a fair day's work – just not if you're Indigenous.