Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary Sally McManus has described the Federal Government’s work-for-dole programme is a discriminatory policy that unfairly targets First Australians.
Ms McManus told the key forum at the 2017 Garma Festival on Yolngu country in north-east Arnhem Land, the Community Development Programme (CDP) is a stark reminder that racism still endures.
“Like at Wave Hill, workers performing work under the CDP program are not even considered workers. Unlike every other “work for the dole” program or the $4/hour internships the Turnbull Government has introduced for young unemployed people, the CDP is immediately compulsory,” she said.
She said it was important to remind the rest of the country of this.
“We have a system for unemployed people in our country, a compulsory work-for-the-dole program, 25 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. For non-remote programs, it's 15 hours a week, 6 months of the year. And CDP workers, in our poorest communities, are being fined at a rate 70 times higher than metropolitan work-for-the-dole programs.”
The controversial CDP covers about 35,000 people, mostly from Aboriginal communities.
Remote participants must do 25 hours of "work-like" activities per week to receive welfare payments, which are up to three times longer than the requirement for unemployed people living in towns.
The Turnbull government has come under fire for issuing more than 200,000 fines to CDP workers who breached their requirements since the program began in July 2015.
Ms McManus says workers under the program are being paid much less than the minimum wage with no rights.
“The workers are being paid $10/hour – way less than the minimum wage of $18.86, with no rights, no leave, no superannuation, no workers compensation – so much less rights and protections of any other worker. How can we accept this? How can we accept some people have less rights than everyone else?,” she said.
“The CDP is only in regional and remote areas. Clearly this is discriminatory. One set of laws for one group of Australians, and another for others based on where they live. But let’s not whitewash this, 85 per cent of the people affected by these laws are Indigenous.”
But Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion backs his controversial program.
“The CDP was getting job seekers off welfare and into work and breaking the cycle of welfare dependency in remote areas of Australia,” he said in a media release.
In May this year, Mr Scullion said remote job-seekers would be better supported to get a job and make a positive contribution to their community.
But while he speaks of the program’s success, Mr Scullion notes more is need to be done.
“While the CDP has been a success, more needs to be done to break the cycle of welfare dependency and ensure job seekers are more engaged. The new model will be community focused working with job seekers to take up work or contribute to their community.”
Critics line up to pan program
The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency and the Human Rights Law Centre have highlighted the "inherent discrimination" of the social security program in separate submissions to a Senate committee.
HRLC legal advocacy director Adrianne Walters says over the course of a year, they're also paid substantially less per hour than participants in non-Indigenous majority urban areas.
"This looks very much like a racially discriminatory government program," she said.
"Money is being poured into a program that is strangling opportunities for community-led employment creation and community development, and seeing families go hungry and young people disengage."
In August last year, on the anniversary of the Wave Hill Walk-Off, leaders of the union movement passed a resolution that laid the groundwork for a national campaign to end the discriminatory policy.
“It is a campaign demanded by Indigenous union members, it is now led by Indigenous trade union members and will have the 100 per cent support of their non-indigenous sisters and brothers. To this end, the First Nations Workers Alliance was born, this year, on the anniversary of the Palm Island strike,” Ms McManus said.
Ms McManus said the First Nations Worker's Alliance is a union for CDP workers, and these workers deserve a trade union
“It was Indigenous workers who conceived this idea, a union for CDP workers and an alliance for all First Nations workers. This is the voice of CDP workers, of indigenous trade unionists. It is theirs to build and join,” she said.
The First Nations Workers Alliance aims to determine the campaign and demands surrounding the CDP program.
Ms McManus said one thing is clear, people want wages for work, real jobs and real wages.
“We have a significant opportunity here, to collectively band together and say no. Our strength, both historically and in present day is our strength in numbers to say no.”