Why Aboriginal Australians are still having their wages 'stolen' 50 years after the Wave Hill Walk-off

Why Aboriginal Australians are still having their wages 'stolen' 50 years after the Wave Hill Walk-off

This article first appeared on ABC News.

It's 2017 and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are again fighting against the systemic denial of fair pay for work.

When people talk about stolen wages — the slavery-like system that saw Aboriginal people denied any or equal pay for hard work over decades — they typically speak of the past.

But the pervasive and poisonous tentacles of systemic racism in Australia are very much of the present.

Racism takes many forms, but one particularly insidious way it presents in modern policy is the systematic undervaluing of work done by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Federal Government's remote "work for the dole" program, the Community Development Program, targets remote communities and forces participants, 83 per cent of whom are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, to work up to three times as many hours per year as people in cities.

In other words, people in remote communities are forced to do more work for the same basic social security payment.

The program is plainly demeaning, racist and reminiscent of a dark past.

A 'jobs' program without jobs

To add to the indignity of having to work more for the same payment as the non-Indigenous majority, the program is displacing genuine opportunities for waged work and community development.

Some CDP participants are doing work like security, construction and plumbing for a social security payment, which is nearly half the minimum wage, instead of being employed, paid a fair wage and afforded workplace protections.

There is work to be done in remote communities — the government could properly employ job-seekers in roles that develop communities — like building infrastructure or providing health and community services.

Or, government could support job-seekers with the training they need to fill existing jobs that often go to non-locals.

While community development programs typically aim to alleviate poverty, the Government's program is strangling opportunities in remote communities and entrenching poverty.

It is further bruising communities that have already withstood policy failure after policy failure by successive governments.

History repeats itself

This week Australia was reviewed by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and this insidious, present form of stolen wages was noticed.

It's a sad state of affairs when Australia needs to be shamed on the world stage for failing to uphold basic rights to fair pay and equality.

But people like Lee*, from the remote Northern Territory community of Daguragu, know the importance of fighting for wage justice all too well.

Lee has told me about the indignity of being forced to work more hours than other Australians, of being cut off payments for not keeping up with the hours, of struggling to make ends meet.

The depressingly ironic part of this is that Lee comes from a community that knows more than a thing or two about fighting for equal pay.

Daguragu is the home of the Gurindji, who Vincent Lingari led on the famous Wave Hill Walk-off in 1966 — a near-decade long movement that started as a protest against unfair pay and working conditions at the Wave Hill Cattle Station.

The Wave Hill protest was occurring at the same time that the world was negotiating the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The injustices that the Wave Hill walk-off highlighted played a key part in Australia's ultimate ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and ultimate introduction of our Racial Discrimination Act.

Fast-forward more than 50 years and this time, the denial of rights is dressed up as "community development".

A positive alternative

In an implicit acceptance of the problems of the Community Development Program, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, promised in May 2017 to consult Aboriginal communities about a "new" model.

Still, nothing has changed and little has been heard about the Government's intentions.

This week the world's anti-racism experts reminded Australia that it must do more to rid racism from every corner of our nation.

Amongst many things, this means working alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and supporting community-led alternatives that reflect the aspirations of local communities, rather than the questionable aspirations of politicians in Canberra.

When it comes to the Government's harmful Community Development Program, there is an alternative ready and waiting — a positive alternative to counter the Government's negative and harmful program. An alternative founded on fair wages for work.

It has been developed by Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT and was laid at the government's front door in September.

This alternative scheme would offer genuine employment in roles that will simultaneously develop communities.

The scheme would also help people to meaningfully address barriers to employment such as health issues and family hardship.

The hard work has been done.

Now the Government must step up to the plate and end the racism and harm of the "Community Development Program" and work side-by-side with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders who have already determined a fair way forward.

It should not take the UN to remind Australia of what is so clearly right and fair.

*Not Lee's real name

Adrianne Walters is a director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.