In early October three wharfies from Port Botany in Sydney travelled to Central Australia to meet with workers in Aboriginal communities and discuss conditions under the Community Development Program (CDP).
The trip documented further evidence of extreme hardship and exploitation under the scheme, which has faced widespread condemnation from Aboriginal organisations, unions, Labor and the Greens and is now being reviewed by a Federal Senate committee.
Naomi Cain, Zachary Wone and Natalie Wasley are rank and file members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), a radical union with a long history of supporting Aboriginal struggles for justice. The MUA Sydney branch has developed particularly strong relationships with communities in Central Australia through campaigns against the Northern Territory Intervention and the attempted imposition of a national nuclear waste dump on Warlmanpa land at Muckaty. This trip was part of a delegation organised with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), which has initiated a new organisation, the First Nations Workers Alliance, specifically to fight against CDP.
The problem with the Community Development Program
Currently, CDP participants in remote areas are required to work for 25 hours a week, 52 weeks a year to receive their Centrelink entitlements. This calculates to an hourly rate of between $10.80 - $11.70 per hour for workers on Newstart and $8.75 per hour for workers on Youth Allowance. This is well below award wages.
CDP workers are also excluded from protections under the mainstream industrial laws such as workers’ compensation, superannuation and occupational health and safety protections. To make things worse, across the Northern Territory, most CDP workers are on the BasicsCard, meaning they receive only half of this money in cash. Australia wide, more than 80 per cent of people on CDP are Aboriginal.
“As someone who has worked on the waterfront for 15 years, it was absolutely horrifying to see the unjust and inhumane working conditions Aboriginal people in this region are being subjected to."
Naomi Cain is an MUA delegate from DP World at Port Botany and a member of the union’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) Committee. She said, “As someone who has worked on the waterfront for 15 years, it was absolutely horrifying to see the unjust and inhumane working conditions Aboriginal people in this region are being subjected to. It’s a blatant attack on traditions and cultural beliefs. If there were these sorts of conditions in our industry we would all be on strike until there was change. That’s the kind of power we need to build”.
To me, it’s modern day slavery… we have gone back to the days of getting rations of flour, tea and sugar”
The MUA delegation held a number of workplace meetings in Tennant Creek to hear about how the program was operating in the town and surrounding communities, along with encouraging workers to sign up with the First Nations Workers Alliance. A former CDP worker Clarence Satour told the delegation, “Lots of our mob are qualified and willing to work, but they’re only getting kids wages on CDP. To me, it’s modern day slavery… we have gone back to the days of getting rations of flour, tea and sugar”.
Clarence described widespread hunger as people struggle to afford groceries on their allowance. He said missing one day without approval can result to a $50-70 reduction in pay and multiple days missed can lead to payments cut off entirely for eight weeks. He said some people were going without prescribed medications because they cannot afford them under this system. The pressure to do activities and meet Centrelink appointments while struggling to survive is often overwhelming: “You can only take so much kicking before you think, ‘the only thing I can do nowadays is breathe. That’s virtually it for a lot of our fellas.’”
CDP worker's first-hand accounts
One current CDP worker in Tennant Creek spoke about how the lack of resources available for CDP activities created safety issues. He had to take his own initiative to source Personal Protective Equipment for manual labouring work. Other workers complained that they and their family members were being forced to report for CDP activities and Centrelink interviews despite having serious illness or injuries, including one example of a man being forced to work between his regular dialysis appointments.
Ben Taylor, a CDP activity supervisor in Tennant Creek, explained that prisoners are “getting much higher wages than our CDP participants”. He said that CDP was exacerbating a situation where “our people are living in third world conditions”.
Everyone the delegation spoke to emphasised the urgent need for government investment to create properly paid jobs in communities. Tennant Creek and surrounding outstations and communities are still feeling the impacts of the closure of the old Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), which employed hundreds of people in the region on award wages, before it was cut as part of the Northern Territory Intervention.
“The whitefellas are constantly bringing us into town to sign papers, when we want to stay on our communities to work. If you don’t go into their office to report you can get suspended for eight weeks."
Community leader and CDP worker, Dianne Stokes Nampin explained that the removal of these jobs has forced many people away from their homelands and into town. Although CDP workers can in theory do community development work on their outstations and remote communities, the lack of income and resources, along with onerous reporting requirements often makes this impossible.
“The whitefellas are constantly bringing us into town to sign papers, when we want to stay on our communities to work. If you don’t go into their office to report you can get suspended for eight weeks. There are so many more people in Tennant Creek now putting in forms, jumping on the Centrelink computer, trying to get an interview, trying to get back on payments after being cut off,” Dianne said.
Sandra Morrison Nangala, formerly a regional delegate for the Central Land Council agreed, saying “it’s very sad to see all our young people are in town now, because there’s nothing out there in the community with CDP. The most we can get is a rake and shovel. We really need job opportunities out bush, with resources like vehicles and tractors, to look after our community properly, keep it clean and healthy”.
After the Tennant Creek visit, the MUA delegation attended a large meeting of CDP workers and supporters in Alice Springs, hosted by the First Nations Workers Alliance. Zachary Wone is the Secretary of the ATSI Committee of the MUA Sydney Branch. He explained to the Alice Springs meeting:
“I want to see every worker in this country have the same conditions we have on the wharves. We have to fight every day for those conditions. It is a constant struggle … CDP workers up here are doing work they should be paid proper wages for, it’s disgraceful. Unionising the workforce is the way to stop these abuses. From our side, in the big cities, where people don’t know what’s happening, we want to raise the consciousness there. We’d love to have some of you come down to the waterfront and talk to our workmates, build the links between us. I believe that historically, this is how we have made change happen”.
BasicsCard and the continuing NT Intervention
A major theme coming from all the workers during the meeting was anger at the continuing NT Intervention, resenting the BasicsCard that controlled their income, the special police powers targeting Aboriginal people and the increase in racism experienced in town. Many of the workers had experience working in their communities and being paid wages under the old CDEP scheme. They told similar stories to people in Tennant Creek about the increased pressures driving people to come in to town.
The meeting passed a strong resolution welcoming the formation of the First Nations Workers Alliance. There was a call for a national day of action and support from unions across the country to fight against the continuing Intervention and for a properly waged, community based employment program to replace CDP.
This article was developed in collaboration with Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research.