Land Rights News Central Australia: Land Rights News (September 2010)

Published: September, 2010

Wave Hill still fighting for equality

At a rally in front of the Northern Territory Parliament on 2 June construction workers, employed through the federal government’s Commonwealth Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program, claimed they are being exploited as cheap labour and have brought the fight for their rights to national attention.

The men were supported in their demonstration by participants from the original Walk-Off, including Jimmy Wave Hill, trade unionists, and Kalkaringi community leaders and activists.

Workers converting a disused power station into a community arts centre in Kalkaringi, 460 km south-west of Katherine, say they are made to work 30-hour weeks in return for fortnightly Centrelink payments consisting of $250 paid into a bank account and $150 paid onto their BasicsCard.

For employees on the project this effectively equates to an hourly rate of $4.80. The national minimum wage is $15 per hour.

Under CDEP workers are supposed to complete no more than 16 hours per week. Money paid to BasicsCards is subject to welfare quarantining and can only be spent on prescribed products – food, health and hygiene products, and clothing.

For many Aboriginal people it is a reminder of the days when they were paid in rations of flour, tea and sugar.

Peter Inverway is the spokesman for today’s protestors. As a boy his father told him stories of life during the Walk-off and the near-starving conditions people suffered when forced to live on rations. He never imagined that he would face a similar battle.

“We’ve gone back to when my people were working for rations of tea, flour and a bit of tobacco,” he told a group of union leaders in Melbourne.

In 1966 the men, women and children camped at Dagaragu began their campaign as a protest against their effective enslavement under the working conditions offered at what was the largest cattle station in the world.

Their action led to the longest industrial dispute in Australia’s history and eventually resulted in the Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1975, which sought to redress the dispossession of Australia’s indigenous people.

Australia’s organised labour movement, as it did during the original Walk-Off, is assisting the Kalkaringi workers in their campaign with support and resources.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union flew Mr Inverway to Sydney and Melbourne to speak to members and raise awareness of the exploitation of Indigenous workers involved in CDEP.

CFMEU organiser Rebel Hanson said there was a strong reaction amongst members to the racist element of the Kalkaringi workers’ situation.

“We want equal pay for equal work,” he said. “Workers are entitled to award wages regardless of whether they’re Indigenous and living in the Northern Territory.

“The people Peter spoke to were disgusted with the conditions he described. It’s a disgrace on the government,” he added.

Kara Touchie, Chairperson of the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ (ACTU) Indigenous Committee, said the claims of the Kalkaringi workers are not an isolated case. Addressing the June rally in Darwin she said that such abuses were widespread throughout the Northern Territory.

The ACTU is currently investigating other allegations relating to the CDEP program.

Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, claimed to be “shocked” by the allegations and referred the case to the Fair Work Ombudsman. Her department has also said it will conduct an investigation. Upon request, a spokesperson for the Minister said they were unwilling to make any comment on its progress.