First Nations Workers Alliance Trip

“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”.

—Naomi Cain, Committee member at DP World (Port Botany) and MUA Sydney Branch Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) Committee member.

MUA Sydney Branch members Zach Wone,Naomi Cain and Natalie Wasley recently travelled to the Northern Territory as part of a First Nations Workers Alliance delegation. Other attendees were Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Indigenous Officer Lara Watson, ACTU Indigenous Educator Wayne Costello and National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) NSW member Paddy Gibson. 

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The First Nations Workers Alliance was established by the ACTU to campaign against the racist and punitive Community Development Program (CDP) introduced in 2015 by the Turnbull Government. This replaced previous programs where people on government payments could earn real wages for additional work undertaken.

Due to extremely limited private or government employment available in remote areas, people receive payments through Centrelink for work including building maintenance, landscaping, land management, art projects, digital training and community development.

All remote CDP workers are now subject to a strict regime of 25 hours a week of activities for 52 weeks of the year. This is well above what is expected of people ‘working for the dole’ in cities. CDP participants are not classified as workers under the Fair Work Act and therefore do not accrue superannuation or have access to personal,sick or carers leave.They are paid well below minimum wage, earning approximately $290 a week. 

The trip to Central Australia was at the request of Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs, the largest service provider for the Community Development Program (CDP) in the town and nearby communities. 

Tangentyere members had learnt about the FNWA campaign at a conference marking ten years of the NT Intervention that was held in Alice Springs in June and had requested FNWA members travel back to hold a specific information session for CDP workers.

Revisiting the region allowed for the MUA delegates and FNWA to follow up with people that had joined the campaign in June, which is critical for keeping people informed, engaged and actively participating in the campaign.

A Senator Inquiry into the CDP program is currently underway, so it was very timely for participants, supervisors and service providers to meet and collaborate to express to the government the many structural problems with the program. The First Nations Workers Alliance goal is to abolish the current program and facilitate people earning real wages for work.

The MUA delegation also travelled to Tennant Creek and met with CDP participants from a range of programs, their impacted family members, CDP activity supervisors, electorate staff of the local elected Member and staff of Julalikari Council, which oversees the CDP participation of over 1000 people across the vast Barkly Shire area.

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The MUA delegation conducted five extended interviews on camera to share with FNWA organisers and for outreach/education purposes. These interviews were the basis of an article published in NITV online.

http://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2017/10/19/momentum-grows-behind-first-nations-workers-alliance

Specific issues identified as affecting CDP workers in the Barkly region include:

-Inadequate equipment and PPE (personal protective equipment) being provided to participants both in town and on remote communities.

-Too few staff in job provider offices, forcing remote participants to travel to town for appointments (using a significant proportion of their fortnightly payments to do so).

-Difficulty in obtaining certificates from medical staff when sick, as people are not considered ‘real workers’ and therefore not in need of a work release certificate- yet if one cannot be provided then money can be deducted for days missed.

-If leave is not approved by the job provider for illness, family or cultural responsibilities then people are breached and left without any payments for up to eight weeks. This has a huge impact on children and extended families who rely on this income.

-Barkly Work Camp prisoners are employed in some local positions at higher pay rates than CDP workers.

Alice Springs

In Alice Springs, the FNWA delegation coordinated a half day meeting for CDP participants to discuss their work conditions, learn about union organising and discuss the FNWA campaign priorities and aims. 

Men and women from a range of CDP activities attended, engaged in vigorous discussion and composed and unanimously passed a statement covering many local issues (see below). 

FNWA held an information stall at the annual Tangentyere Family Day. Many people stopped by for discussion and joined or took information for family members to join. 

The MUA delegation conducted further discussion and informal meetings with a range of people for the remainder of the trip including senior Tangentyere staff and CDP participants in Alice Springs. 

Discussions were also held at Yulara, located near Mutitjulu community, with CDP participants and other local residents. 

There is no cost for CDP participants to join the First Nations Workers Alliance. All union members are also eligible to join as supporters. More information about the campaign and how to join is at: www.fnwa.com.au.

Statement by CDP workers who participated in the First Nations Workers Alliance Wage Justice Workshop in Alice Springs, October 5, 2017. 

We are happy we could meet with the First Nations Workers Alliance and talk about how to fight for proper jobs, wage justice and self-determination for our communities.

We have been suffering under the NT Intervention for 10 years now. This is a very racist policy that takes away our freedoms as Aboriginal people and puts us into deep poverty. It is having a serious impact on emotional and cultural wellbeing. The Intervention needs to end now.

One of the main things that the Intervention did was remove the old Community Development Employment Program which allowed us to live and work on our homelands and communities, to serve these communities.

With the new CDP scheme, we are being pushed to move into town to report to Centrelink and look for work.

This has taken many of us away from our homes, it has taken away pride in communities. We need rights to live and work on our own lands, with resources to build a better future for our children.

Under the Intervention we are on the BasicsCard - we call it the racist card. This is about control of black people, it’s very restrictive where we can shop and what we can buy. We have been pushed back generations, to the days of working for rations and not having citizenship rights.

Under CDP we have no rights to workers’ compensation, superannuation, holiday pay or other rights many workers take for granted. We are paid well below minimum wage, half of it on our BasicsCard. We need proper wages, paid in cash and equality between black and white workers.

Centrelink has so much power over us. We spend many hours sitting on the phone waiting to talk to someone in a far away city. They have too much power to say whether our cultural leave or carers leave will be approved - these are decision that should be made locally. We need self determination - our Aboriginal organisations need to control employment programs, not private providers.

Very often, people are docked $50 for missing a days work and can be cut off for eight weeks. This causes problems not only for us but to our families. We can’t access basics like food and power and we are threatened with eviction from our homes.

There is a strong connection between the large numbers of Aboriginal people going into prison under the Intervention and problems with employment. People are often locked up for no good reason. This makes it very difficult to get employment when you get out. Why will the government spend hundreds of millions of dollars to lock us up, but not to employ us building up our communities?

We are proud to join the First Nations Workers Alliance. We are calling for support from workers and their unions across Australia to join us in this fight to justice. The Intervention and CDP drives a division between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers. Through the FNWA and the union movement we can unite and say this situation is unacceptable. We want support to have a day of action in March 2018 to take forward our demands for urgent change so we can have proper wages real jobs and self-determination for our communities.