Aboriginal activists form new organisation

The FNWA, a new workers' organisation, hopes to fight for Indigenous workers' rights

A picture of the FNWA website's landing page.

Aboriginal activists have formed a new organisation this year, the First Nations Workers’ Alliance (FNWA), to challenge the Community Development Program (CDP), a work-for-the dole scheme in remote areas. Activists argue the program is discriminatory against Aboriginal people and will fail to close the employment gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Led by Aboriginal unionists and supported by the Australia Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), the FNWA aims to organise CDP workers and advocate for their rights. The alliance is calling for the CDP to be phased out and replaced by real investment in employment opportunities for remote
Aboriginal Australia.

Under the CDP, welfare recipients in regional and remote areas are required to work for 25 hours a week over five days in order to receive their Centrelink payments. This amounts to a wage of $11.60 an hour, well below the federal minimum wage. The scheme covers 34,000 people, 80 per cent of whom are Aboriginal. Participants are not covered by the Fair Work Act and are therefore unable to access federal workplace health and safety protections as well as other standard workplace rights such as workers’ compensation and annual, sick, and carer’s leave.

The CDP was introduced in 2015 as a replacement for the previous Community Development Employment Scheme, or CDEP, which ran from 1977 to 2013 until it was abolished by the Abbott government. Zachary Wone, secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia’s Sydney Branch’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Committee, says “it’s very telling that they took out the ‘employment’ part, because it’s not about employment, it’s really about using Aboriginal people as cheap black labour.”

While some CDP participants are employed by community organisations, others are essentially providing government-subsidised free labour for private companies.

The earlier CDEP scheme was administered entirely by local community organisations rather than the federal government, and supported the successful development of Aboriginal enterprises in remote communities. Many Indigenous ranger projects were initially made possible under the CDEP program; these projects have received international acclaim for their successes in combining cultural and natural heritage management with improved social outcomes.

The newer CDP, by contrast, has failed to generate positive outcomes for regional and remote Aboriginal communities. Only 3500 participants, or 10 per cent of the total, have received meaningful employment through the scheme. Furthermore, harsh financial penalties are given under the CDP for missing work — if participants miss three days of their placement, their payments can be cut off entirely for two months. Given the poor labour market opportunities in remote Australia, these penalties can leave Aboriginal people without any income at all. This has led to evictions, increased homelessness, food insecurity and an increase in crime as Aboriginal families have been unable to afford rent and groceries.

Quarterly government data on job seeker compliance shows that for the previous two years, CDP recipients have received more financial penalties than all other welfare recipients combined. This means that Aboriginal people in regional and remote areas are 70 times more likely to be penalised than urban job seekers.

Jon Altman, foundation director at Australian National University’s (ANU’s) Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, argues that the CDP has completely failed to meet government rhetoric of ‘closing the gap’ in employment between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Rather than providing a pathway out of welfare dependency into employment, the program has entrenched Aboriginal disadvantage and directly contributed to worsening poverty in Aboriginal communities. “If the Australian government wanted to design a program that aimed to impoverish nearly 30,000 Indigenous Australians,” he says, “it is hard to imagine a more effective way to do this than CDP.”

For Zachary Wone, the program is “history repeating itself,” as the CDP closely resembles earlier paternalist policies to which Aboriginal people were subjected over the 19th and 20th centuries. Under the Aborigines’ Protection Board, abolished in the 1960s, Aboriginal people were treated as legal wards of the state, with the Board having the power to decide where they lived and worked. Many Aboriginal people in remote areas were paid in rations rather than money wages, and those who were paid cash wages had their pay confiscated by local Protection Board authorities. Legal challenges continue to this day about millions of dollars which was simply stolen by the Board rather than passed on to Aboriginal workers.

Wone sees the CDP program as part of a host of “punitive, discriminatory and exploitative” measures introduced as part of the Northern Territory Intervention. Implemented under Howard in 2007, the Intervention saw funding for Aboriginal community programs cut and a range of government restrictions placed on Aboriginal people, particularly in remote communities. Ostensibly introduced to curb high rates of child sexual abuse, the decade since the Intervention has seen worsening social outcomes for Aboriginal people, including higher rates of unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, juvenile detention and adult incarceration. Wone describes the racism in the Territory as “shocking” and worries failed government policies are creating a “lost generation” who have no employment or training opportunities and feel they have no future.

Earlier this year, the Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory (APONT) put forward an alternative model for economic development and employment creation in remote areas. APONT is calling for the CDP to be replaced by a community-controlled scheme, under which communities would be empowered to decide development projects for themselves and have greater control over the design of projects. Furthermore, participants would be paid award wages rather than having to work for the dole.

Zachary Wone agrees with the APONT model, arguing “I would like to see the Government end the CDP, and instead make a genuine and ongoing commitment to supporting meaningful jobs with fair pay and conditions for First Nations workers in their communities.”

The FNWA has been busy in the two months since it was established, having held community information events in Sydney, Townsville, Darwin, Alice Springs and the remote community at Gukula. The organisation is currently undertaking a recruitment drive to sign up Aboriginal CDP workers in remote areas. Organisers visited Alice Springs earlier in the year as part of a ‘Stop The Intervention’ conference, and signed up CDP participants working at a nursery in Alice Springs. Further trips are planned to sign up Aboriginal CDP workers in other areas.

Wone has urged all interested people to get involved — for him, “both the First Nations struggle and the union movement have been strongest when we are working together.” He sees FNWA as “an opportunity to add another proud chapter to that history of struggle.”