Stand with First Nations workers to defeat exploitative, punitive and racist Community Development Program

Stolen Wages contingent in 2005 Cairns May Day March. Photo by Christine Howes.
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Arrernte unionist, Celeste Liddle, at an August 2016 protest in Darwin to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wave Hill Walk-Off. Photo by Australian Unions.

The heroic story of the Wave Hill walk-off is immortalised in the ballad From Little Things Big Things Grow. On 23 August 1966, two hundred Aboriginal cattle workers, domestic servants and their families walked off the station run by British cattle baron, Lord Vestey, to demand equal wages. The Gurindji were not paid wages equal to non-Indigenous stockmen. A year earlier, the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission had accepted the bosses’ argument that equal wages would “ruin” the industry, which relied heavily on cheap Aboriginal labour. More than half a century since this watershed battle, many Aboriginal workers in remote communities are in a worse situation than the Gurindji were in 1966. Those subject to the Community Development Program (CDP) are not even classified as workers. 

Punitive and racist. CDP was introduced by Nigel Scullion, Coalition Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, on 1 July 2015. CDP workers are covered by the Social Security Act and not the Fair Work Act. Legally these workers are not entitled to basic workplace employment standards, including superannuation. They are excluded from Occupational Health and Safety protections and Workers Compensation, and cannot officially be represented by unions. 

The program operates in 60 regions across the country, covering more than a thousand remote communities. There are 33,000 people on the scheme, 94% of them Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. 

Those conscripted to CDP are required to work five hours a day, five days a week for 46 weeks of the year. These workers can be supplied on request as a source of free labour to private businesses. Having benefited from these arrangements, should an employer decide to offer a remote job seeker employment for 26 weeks or longer, they get a $7,500 handout from taxpayers. 

From work to welfare. Government rhetoric emphasises the CDP “freeing” people from “damaging welfare dependency” by preparing them for jobs in the mainstream economy. Rubbish: it’s about cheap labour and forced assimilation and, ultimately, land theft by driving First Nations people off country. 

CDP, while having a name similar to earlier initiatives, should not be confused with the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) which ran from 1977 until 2009. Initially popular, the program’s positive elements were eroded in later years after coming under attack by the Howard government for allowing CDEP workers to remain in their communities rather than leaving to take up “real” jobs, for example in mining. 

During the 1960s, people living in remote communities like the Gurindji were either underpaid on cattle stations or in various community enterprises where they received a below-award “training wage.” The 1967 referendum, which delivered full citizenship, coupled with the emerging Land Rights and Black power movement, put an end to this. Aboriginal workers became entitled to full award wages and welfare. Government policy — in words at least — shifted from assimilation to self-determination. 

CDEP was developed in this context. Locally designed programs were a hybrid, combining income support payments with employment. Importantly, participation in CDEP was flexible, culturally appropriate and under community control. Residents receiving welfare payments in remote communities were not forced to undergo any kind of activities — something racist critics hated. Taking part in CDEP was completely voluntary. Participants chose their roles. After opting in and working 15 hours a week, they could work additional hours if they chose to do so at award rates with no reduction in their income support payments. Participants working part time or full time all had the status of workers. In remote Australia, more than 90% of CDEP participants worked more than 15 hours a week, with more than 20% choosing to work full time. This flexibility enabled CDEP workers to hunt and fish and to participate in ceremonial and cultural activities. CDEP work included a range of community and not-for-profit activities, such as art production, Indigenous ranger programs, night patrols, women’s services and council work. 

CDEP was destroyed from 2007 to 2009 by the Howard government’s Northern Territory Intervention, which introduced the patronising system of income management. Aboriginal people in the NT were provided with a Basics Card: up to 100% of their payment could be issued through a “cashless” card with restrictions on where they could spend it and what they could purchase. CDEP payments had been wages, and were thus outside the scope of welfare quarantining. So CDEP was scrapped!

First Nations workers who took pride in their jobs under CDEP were now considered to be working for the dole. Participants were controlled by Centrelink, which reduced work hours and payments, and quarantined incomes. The last ALP government also defined participants as unemployed in its Remote Jobs and Communities Program in 2013.

The Community Development Program of today is even worse. Participants are modern day slaves, receiving $11.60 per hour, or $290 per week, welfare payments to work 25 hours per week for a not-for-profit or a private profit business. Even this meagre payment is not guaranteed, as CDP workers have 70 times the financial penalties imposed on them compared to others on work-for-dole.  Those on the Job Active program in non-remote areas are required to work 15 hours a week for six months of the year and are less likely to be penalised. In the first year of the program, 54% of all non-compliance (or “breach”) reports for work-for-dole were for CDP workers, despite their being just 5% of participants. 

Lara Watson. Photo by Alison Thorne.

Firing up the union movement. In June 2017, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) launched the First Nations Workers Alliance (FNWA), characterising CDP as racially discriminatory. FNWA, sparked by the union movement, supports CDP workers to organise themselves. FNWA is made up of CDP workers and trade unionists who support them. Lara Watson is the current ACTU Indigenous Officer and also coordinates FNWA. Watson is a Birri Gubba woman from Central West Queensland. She is a powerhouse organiser who criss-crosses the country, building relationships, and empowering CDP workers with skills. CDP workers have given her permission to tell their stories. She describes a CDP worker doing dangerous work with no shoes, gloves or eyewear. When he asked for protective gear, he was threatened with a breach! Then there’s the woman who received an eight-week breach for asking for time off after she lost her husband. FNWA emphasises the need to adhere to cultural protocols. In one community, women are compelled by CDP to paint, even though women of that community are not culturally authorised to tell these stories. The paintings become the property of a private company that can sell them!  

CDP is a job destroyer in remote communities. There are CDP workers driving mining trucks at no cost to business. On Palm Island, there are 20 CDP workers doing local council work. These people should be employed with full work rights and paid at award wages. If the money spent to administer this racist and punitive program was spent on job creation, 19,700 workers in remote Aboriginal communities could be employed full time. Additionally, the government does not use skilled local workers where they are available. Non-Indigenous workers are flown into Elcho Island to perform housing maintenance, while skilled First Nations trades people living in the community are existing on CDP. 

Last December, Lara Watson spoke in Melbourne at an event building on the legacy of Ray Jackson, unionist, Waradjuri warrior, socialist and feminist. Watson said, “It is stolen wages all over again. CDP is not a development program. It is a program exploiting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers. It is a cash cow for private enterprise in remote communities. They get free labour and cash bonuses.” 

Watson also described the impact of the gruelling program, arguing, “this is the first program that has got people to move off country without asking them to, because CDP is so difficult to work with.” People move into towns where the Job Active program is slightly more tolerable. But for how long? Watson notes, “our communities are always the guinea pigs for government. We saw this with the Basics Card.” While initially imposed on 73 Aboriginal communities, income management has been expanded to many other working-class communities. 

Promises can disappear like writing in the sand. After a year-and-a-half of energetic campaigning, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) National Conference announced that, if elected, the ALP would scrap the CDP program. Winning this pledge from the ALP is a tribute to the movement, but there’s a lot of organising needed to turn promises into something real.

Before the election of the ALP government led by Kevin Rudd in 2007, Labor pledged it would negotiate First Nations treaties, boost funding for Aboriginal legal aid and promised it would “protect, preserve and revitalise Indigenous languages.” Once in office it was a different story. After six years in government, there was no progress on treaties. The ALP backed the Northern Territory (NT) government’s destruction of bilingual education. And while Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations was moving, not a cent of compensation was paid, despite this being a central recommendation of the Bringing Them Home report. 

Aboriginal workers are not the only group being cruelly exploited under government programs. Less than a week after the ALP’s National Conference, news broke that Hungry Jacks planned to replace a segment of its workforce with taxpayer-funded interns on below-award wages under the PaTH (Prepare, Train, Hire) program. Youth interns earn as little as $4 an hour. All the ALP can muster by way of a promise in relation to PaTH is that it will be “reviewed.” The Newstart Allowance paid to job seekers, which advocates say must be lifted by $75 per week, will also be “reviewed” by the ALP. 

In the lead-up to the 2007 election, the ALP promised to “review” the NT Intervention. With four elections since — two won by the ALP and two by the Coalition — the NT Intervention and the pernicious Basic Card are still in place. 

From words to action. FNWA has done a wonderful job organising in remote communities, winning commitment from unionists in every industry that CDP must go. Let’s muster this multi-racial solidarity to win appropriate work rights for all. End the racist “special treatment” endured by those living in remote communities. Stop the coercion and ensure all work is recognised as work and paid at an award wage. 

First Nations people must be free to decide how they live and work. They must have the choice to thrive on country in remote communities or to study and work in towns and cities, and be respected as First Nations people, whichever choices they make.  

It is crucial that programs for remote communities be put under control of these same communities to ensure they are designed in culturally appropriate ways and meet community needs. 

We demand: An immediate end to the racist Community Development Program — hold the ALP to its promise!; Sovereignty for First Nations people – fund all Indigenous communities and guarantee community control of community affairs; End the Northern Territory Intervention and scrap income management; Free education and training and well-paid permanent jobs for all who want them — end the outsourcing and privatisation of the public sector; Pay everyone a living wage, free from coercion; Stop handouts to big business. Tax the corporations and provide every community with quality housing, healthcare, education, services and infrastructure.

Alison Thorne is a workplace delegate with the Community and Public Sector Union, who is passionate about all workers’ rights. She is a non-Indigenous supporting member of FNWA. CDP workers can join FNWA for free, Indigenous union members can join for $26 per year, and non-Indigenous unionists can join for $52 per year. Join the fight:

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