Gender segregated work and women’s rights: A history of Aboriginal oppression (part 2)

Action Tank blog post header.png

On 2 September, the Women’s Policy Action Tank presented Putting Women at the Centre: A Policy Forum. We were delighted to have Celeste Liddle (@Utopiana), public commentator, blogger (Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist), Arrernte woman, Unionist, and recent inductee onto the Victorian Honour Roll of Women as one of our keynote speakers. Here we present part 2 of her talk, in which she traces low numbers of Aboriginal students at the tertiary level with systemic injustices that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities experience. Specifically, Celeste discusses how lack of facilities and sanitary supplies keep young women from attending school, and the historic and current practice of non-payment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for their work – which continues today in the guise of the government’s mis-named Community Development Program. Part 1 can be found here.

Aboriginal girls missing school

It’s not that long ago that I wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian as reports started to come to light that Aboriginal girls in rural areas were missing school because they were menstruating. They didn’t have adequate access to reasonably-priced menstrual products, nor the facilities available, such as running water, locks on toilet doors, disposal units etc., to enable them to manage this time of month.  In some communities these products can cost up to $10 a packet.

It is utterly absurd that girls should be missing school in 2017 for this reason. Unfortunately for a lot of these girls, the services taken for granted in the cities are only bestowed upon Aboriginal communities if they are willing to give up their rights, such as land rights, right to proper employment, the right to appropriate housing and amenities, the right to spend one’s income as one pleases.  These girls end up being disempowered by poverty, remoteness and government policy, and their basic needs fall by the wayside.

Against the odds? Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls and young women face multiple barriers to completing their education. Most stem from racist and oppressive government policy.  Photo credit ABC. 

Against the odds? Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls and young women face multiple barriers to completing their education. Most stem from racist and oppressive government policy. Photo credit ABC. 

Racist government policies

Additionally, a couple of months ago, I went to Alice Springs for the ten-year anniversary of the Northern Territory Intervention.  I was there to speak about the Community Development Program (which I will revisit a little bit later in this talk), as well as feed some of the grassroots Indigenous activism back into the union movement.

It was shocking to hear some of the stories coming out of the community still living under the Northern Territory Intervention – or ‘Stronger Futures,’ as the Labor government have rebranded it.  Many of the community-driven programs that used to exist prior to the Intervention and that also delivered basic services to the communities, for example rubbish removal, house repairs, plumbing, and so forth, and things like the multilingual education programs as well, most of them had been removed throughout the course of the Intervention. Or they’d been scrapped in favour of government micromanagement and the Basics Card or the Cashless Welfare Card

So rather than empowering communities and breaking the cycle of poverty, what this has meant for many instead is that they have been thoroughly disempowered, that there have been no services, that they cannot even replace a lock on their house without government approval, and said replacement ends up taking months and costing several hundreds of dollars of money they don’t have.

In an alleged bid to break the cycle of welfare dependency and address these service delivery issues in remote communities, the government has introduced the Community Development Program (CDP) – otherwise known as the Work for the Dole scheme. Participants are expected to work for five hours a day, five hours a week to receive their basic welfare payment. In addition to undertaking what would be considered council work, or government-based work, private enterprises have the ability to apply to become community development program providers and can therefore profiteer off a pool of unpaid labour.

The government claims that the programs are designed to build capacity in these regions and move people into ongoing employment, but as yet there is no evidence of this being an outcome of the CDP, despite the fact that it has been going for two years.

The government claims this program is not racist.  Yet over the areas it operates, 83% are Indigenous, therefore it is clearly targeted. CDP participants have been found to be penalised for noncompliance to their CDP placements at a rate roughly 70% higher than any other welfare recipients.  So right now, in this incredibly wealthy country, Aboriginal people are going without.  A Jobs Australia report released last year found not only was the CDP program not leading to employment outcomes in the communities at all, but basic health issues like malnutrition were climbing.

If you’ve had your welfare payments cut off due to some frivolous non-compliance to your CDP placement and your extended family is helping you cover the basics, then it’s easy to see why people cannot afford to eat or to get medicines for their chronic illnesses. It’s also easy to see why a $10 box of tampons is seen as a luxury leading to girls not going to school. 

A personal story

There is one final point I wish to make and it is around the notion of inherited poverty.  Right now we are seeing a great deal of celebration regarding the growing Aboriginal middle class. But what is the real picture here? And from what initial position has the alleged middle class come from?

Many years ago I googled my Grandmother’s name just to see if it was on the internet anywhere, in fact I googled everyone’s name because this internet thing was pretty new.

I managed to find an audio recording of my nanna that had been stored in the national archives. It was part of the Between Two World Exhibition, which I think happened in the mid-1990s so they still had a copy of it.  And in it Nanna spoke of being a Stolen Generations child and was taken to the Alice Springs Bungalow, and then out to the Jay Creek Children’s Mission and then back again. She spoke of many things during that recording such as her aunties being in tears or having to sleep on concrete floors with a group of, say, four girls sharing blankets in order to break the hardness of the floor.

She also spoke of the training she received while she was in Jay Creek, which was in domestic skills such as cooking and cleaning.  We’ve heard a lot about how these kids were taken away for education purposes but my Grandmother was illiterate until she was about the age I am now. She was taught how to read by the nuns who she was affiliated with through her church activities.

When she was a young teenager, after receiving that domestic skills training, she was sent to work as a domestic servant for a wealthy family.  She never received any payment for her work as she was considered a ward of the state.  She worked there for a few years before she left to marry my grandfather.

To this day there has never been any pay of my grandmother’s wages.  My father grew up in comparable poverty despite the fact that his mother had always worked. When he was 16 years old the Garringi walked off the Wave Hill Station, initially for fair pay and conditions, but eventually for land rights, on strike for nine years. At that time it was legally acceptable to pay women and Aboriginal workers at rates lower than the white men earned, and at Wave Hill and many of the other cattle stations around the Northern Territory, and indeed around the country, some of the Aboriginal workers were barely being paid at all.

In other parts of the country, Aboriginal wages were held in trusts, never to be seen again. If we bring these two historical factors together, the historical nonpayment of work for Aboriginal people, most of which was indentured servitude combined with the historical legislated underpayment of work, generation after generation of Aboriginal people have been [forced] on the back foot economically.

Whereas other people in this country have been able to buy property, invest in shares, build up retirement savings and then hand these on to subsequent generations via their wills, most Aboriginal people have not had this option until more recent generations.  Additionally, the return of the “stolen wages” as that big pool of money has become known, or in other words, the monies that have disappeared into those government trusts for Indigenous labour only to have all the paperwork conveniently ‘disappear’ in most cases, rages on with unions leading the charge to recovery. In reality many people in this country have got incredibly wealthy off many years of unpaid Aboriginal labour. Considering the federal government’s solution to welfare dependence is more unpaid Aboriginal labour through the CDP, we can expect this cycle to continue on for many generations.

Multiple legacies are holding back Aboriginal women

So after all this what I am ultimately stating here is that the biggest hurdles Aboriginal women face when it comes to reaching economic stability are varied and complex.  They range from educational disadvantages such as grappling with structurally hostile institutions, non-inclusive syllabi and racism and sexism, inadequate facilities, and a push to remove kids from their communities to educate them, rather than provide the opportunity for those children to achieve their utmost while in their home communities.

And then there’s the government’s policies, which, rather than include, empower and consult, seem geared to oppress and disempower.

And then finally there’s the legacies. Would we see alleged welfare cycles going on now if ancestors had actually been paid for their work?  If Aboriginal people, particularly women, had been valued as equals in the years gone by?

I wish I could say I think things are getting better.  I come from the privileged position of being university educated, and over the years have developed my own platform from which I can speak out against these disparities. This is why I have continued to be a social commentator despite holding down a full-time job. Australians are largely unaware of these struggles in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and indeed there has been a lot of misinformation that’s gone out [to the public].

I have an opportunity to raise some awareness.  But I do so from a relatively safe position – in the city where I can afford my rent and bills, and where I can live quite a good life. And granted that I had to struggle through university to gain these qualifications whilst supporting myself on $8 an hour, but that’s nothing compared to what some of my extended family members go through in some remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It’s also nothing compared to what some Victorian families go through as well in some of our more impoverished communities. Say, the welfare communities of Fitzroy, all the way out to regional communities such as Shepparton.

Collaboration and respect

And while government policy approaches continue to be punitive and oppressive, I don’t feel a lot of hope for the future, even if through my own activism I manage to clear a few obstacles for others to follow. A more equitable future for Aboriginal women includes the mainstream education of these issues, the reparation and compensation paid for past policies and a commitment to broader collaboration.

Within our communities we have so many strong, knowledgeable Aboriginal women who have been holding things together for such a long time and leading the way for generations.  Their knowledge is invaluable.  Their input to policy is invaluable. There is so much that we can learn if we commit to working together rather than continuously having a ruling class which is imposing upon a perceived insubordinate one.

I firmly believe that this sort of collaboration is the way forward.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.