September 13, 2020

Much like the words ‘invasion, ‘theft’, massacres’, and ‘wars’, Australia appears uncomfortable using the word slavery in reference to its own history.

But no matter what you call it, the forcing of thousands upon thousands of people to work for no money, or only for basic rations, is tantamount to slavery by any meaningful definition. 

Image: Treaty Republic

Blackbirding, Stolen Wages, indentured service, indentured labour; are all words that have been used to avoid the harsh bite of the word. However, the realities of these words have always been much the same; unpaid labour, unsafe working conditions, exploitation, abuse, and decades long campaigns for justice and recognition – many of which are still ongoing. This is a significant relationship between Indigenous and white Australians. 

While the forced labour of Aboriginal people by the Federal and state Governments formally began in the late 19th Century, the system didn’t end until up to the 1970s. This means that there are number of people in our community today who lived through this experience. It’s a period that led to what is now known as the Stolen Wages and is intimately linked to Stolen Generations history. 

Thousands of Aboriginal girls were placed into domestic service under the Government’s Aborigines Welfare Protection Act. Many were mistreated, disrespected and severely underpaid.

The aesthetic of preserved plantation houses in Southern America is increasingly unimpressive in modern times, knowing the racist system that its everyday domesticity ran on.

Something that can just as easily be experienced when admiring historic Gothic mansions in Sydney’s North Shore suburbs or Victorian farmhouses in Australian heritage towns. For these are not just homes, but institutions where Aboriginal girls systematically spent their teenage years under a racist Government incentive, mopping floors, washing laundry and chopping firewood for others.

Domestic service in Australia operated in its own horribly unique course of action. From the early 1900s, Aboriginal girls as young as four-years-old were forcibly removed from their parents by the New South Wales under the NSW Aborigines Protection Act 1909-1969. They were placed in domestic training homes ran by the Aborigines Welfare Board.

Women of this harsh system recall having no toys, no books (with the exception of the Bible), in some cases, no shoes and heartbreakingly, completely no affection. They were trained in preparation to sent out as domestic servants from the age of 15. The weekly income of Aboriginal domestic servants was contracted at a mere sixpence, which had an approximate buying power at the time of ice-cream cone or two apples. Yet very few workers received this small wage, which was supposedly withheld in trusts by the Government. This system continued until the early 1970s.

This history does not only speak volumes about the country’s racist attitudes, but also women’s roles in Australian society.

Lousy Little Sixpence

An influential film by Alec Morgan which comprised interviews and historical never-before-seen footage tells the long history of unpaid servitude of Aboriginal people.

It was premiered in 1983 at the Sydney Film Festival and was the first media of it’s kind to discuss – reveal, even – this widespread dark history. Audiences were so affected that some viewers thought the film was fiction because the concept was too shocking to be conceived as was real. 

Editor’s note: The film is available in 4 parts on YouTube (currently). YouTube would not allow the uploading of the link for part 1 but it is accessible on YouTube.

Rations are not wages

In some cases, indentured labour as slavery is argued against or denied, as the people in question were often paid in rations. This is uncannily similar to those in the US who try to refuse the atrocity of their slavery period by making a point that people were fed and housed as part of the process. *Ahem*. Of course people were fed, human beings require sustenance for energy – energy that was ironically used to encourage them to work for hours on end for no pay.

The link between the Stolen Generations & Stolen Wages

Generally, the public is not as aware of wages being stolen from Indigenous people as high as children being removed from families.

While the Bringing Them Home Report by the Australian Human Rights Commission was released in 1997 – which was courtesy of academics, artists, activists and performers such as Peter Read, Alec Morgan, Kev Carmody, Archie Roach and even Midnight Oil who increased public awareness and pushed the agenda – , a Senate Inquiry into the monies stolen wasn’t held until a decade later – in 2007.

There are also significant barriers to Indigenous people finding out just how much they are owed as many records and government document have been incomplete, lost or destroyed. Some of the records were deliberately destroyed, particularly when Aboriginal Welfare Boards were disbanded in the late 1960s. It’s also important to consider that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not allowed bank accounts until the 1970s, so payment processing were added hurdles.

The Stolen Generations and Stolen Wages are not mutually exclusive. Many members of the Stolen Generations later had their wages withheld while working as domestics or farm hands after ‘completing’ their training in the homes that they were taken to after being forcibly removed from their families. Stolen Generations were stolen and thrust into the Stolen Wages system.

Boys were enslaved as well

From the early 1900s, Aboriginal children were systematically placed into homes run by the state Government where they were to train for their servitude.

Boys taken to Kinchela Aboriginal Boys’ Home, which took up to 600 children in its 40-odd years of operation, trained them to be gainfully employed in manual or agricultural work when they turned 15 years of age. A large number of girls were taken to Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls’ Home with to be trained to work in domestic service when they also turned 15.

Both roles demonstrate the prevalent racist ideology that Aboriginal people were inferior in intelligence and only fit to become the servants of the rest of society, and their ’employment’ was driven by their gender, as opposed to their interest, talent or skills.    

Blackbirding (or violent displacement of Black people to force them to provide free labour)

‘Blackbirding’, in Australia, was the practice of kidnapping or coercing Islanders from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and other nearby islands to work in Australia as indentured labourers.

It is believed that over 50,000 people were brought into New South Wales and Queensland, predominantly in the 1800s. Although there were legal frameworks in place to allow this practice, it is regarded by many as having been a mere pretense to justify what would otherwise be acknowledged as criminal practices.The 1901 Pacific Island Labourers Act saw approximately 7,000 people deported, tearing families and communities apart.


An excellent article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Emelda Davis, a second generation descendant of South Sea Islanders who were blackbirded, speaks of the inhumanity and cruelty of this deportation by noting that, “the wages of 15,000 deceased Islanders were used for this deportation and the low and hard-earned wages of the Islanders were used to pay part of their fare to return to the islands that in some cases had seen their entire male population kidnapped.”

It’s still going on

Today, there are some Indigenous people in Australia who are required to work a minimum 46 weeks a year for the Government with no leave entitlements and no superannuation, and are paid a significant portion of their wages on a card that can only be spent in certain stores and on certain wages.

The Community Deveopment Programme (CDP), an Government employment service for people living in remote areas, has been criticised in a recent Jobs Australia report as being overly complicated and having not enough community buy in. There are also concerns that the system makes reaching the requirements difficult and with too many financial penalties. For example, a participant can lose up to 10 per cent of their fortnightly pay-per-day for non-compliance. The CDP has been further criticised for applying penalties more frequently than comparable non-remote programs.

A recent report completed for Jobs Australia by ANU researcher, Lisa Fowkes, points out that, “There are approximately 34,000 job seekers in CDP, compared to around 760,000 in jobactive – it is less than 1/20th the size of the larger program.

Yet, since the CDP came in, the number of penalties to remote job seekers has exceeded that applied to their non-remote counterparts. In the quarter ending March 2016, 46,183 financial penalties were applied to CDP participants, compared with 27,338 applied to jobactive job seekers.”

In the conclusion to this report it states that: The most important thing is that many aspects of the current CDP must be changed, as the Program is currently causing more harm than good, and in areas where the alternatives to income support are, at this point in time, extremely limited. Thus creating the exploitation of Indigenous labour still occuring, in 2016. 

Source: Karina Marlow, Luke Pearson, Sophie Verass for sbs.com.au

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