More Aboriginal people forced to work for BasicsCard

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has announced that more Aboriginal people will be forced to work for the BasicsCard as part of the government’s response to the growing social crisis in Alice Springs.

$1.2 million has been allocated to create 100 new positions in Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) in the town. A “community work crew” will be established to complete a range of jobs “including landscaping, painting over graffiti and preparing the town camps for postal services by installing letterboxes and assisting with refurbishments”.

The government has also announced 50 new CDEP places in Darwin to help landscape the town camps.

For most workers in Australia, landscaping or municipal work would attract at least award wages. But changes to CDEP brought in alongside the NT Intervention mean that Aboriginal workers receive only Centrelink entitlements, which are half quarantined on a BasicsCard.

The racist attacks on CDEP, along with the closure of community councils, lie at the centre of current problems griping Alice Springs and other NT towns, fueling anger and social dislocation.

Thousands of economic refugees have left bush communities as waged jobs and services are withdrawn. But the urban centres lack the necessary housing, support networks or employment prospects to accommodate the scale of the drift.

Growing levels of homelessness, despair and property crime have fueled a racist backlash from small business owners in Alice Springs. Their calls for police patrols with attack dogs have already won government support.Sustained national media attention has prompted Prime Minister Julia Gillard to announce a visit to Alice Springs to see firsthand the scale of the crisis.

Jobs with Justice

In response, Aboriginal community leaders and the Intervention Rollback Action Group are preparing to meet Gillard with a statement calling for an end to work for the BasicsCard.

The statement demands the government, “immediately invest in 100 proper jobs in Alice Springs, repeal discriminatory Intervention laws and work to establish a new community based employment program that can provide badly needed jobs and services for all Aboriginal people in town and in the bush.”

Other BasicsCard workers are also taking action, with support from national trade unions.Workers from Amoonguna, 25 kilometres outside Alice Springs were employed under the government’s $700 million Strategic Housing and Infrastructure Project (SIHIP). They were forced to work long hours on housing refurbishments in the community from July to October last year in exchange for quarantined Centrelink payments and intermittent “top-up” pay.

Indigenous Employment Minister Mark Arbib claimed in February Senate estimates that all Aboriginal workers engaged on SIHIP were paid “at least award rates” and none were employed through the CDEP scheme. These claims have been proven false by testimony and documentation from Amoonguna. Some weeks the workers received only $6 cash an hour. The CFMEU is helping to prepare an industrial case.

Unions NT and the CFMEU are sponsoring a petition demanding backpay at award rates for all hours worked, and “jobs with justice” for all Aboriginal workers. The petition has over 2000 signatures, including many residents from remote communities and building workers from southern cities.

The petition will be launched by Greens Senator Rachel Siewert at a rally in Sydney on May 5 and put to parliament later in this month.

Another Intervention?

Meanwhile, on April 15, Macklin told a press conference in Adelaide that she has not ruled out extending punitive Intervention powers, set to expire in July 2012. The Labor government is failing to convince communities to voluntarily extend 5-year leases over township land seized through the Intervention. These leases are crucial for continuing the levels of social control the government desires.

Macklin was responding to comments made by Bess Price, chair of the NT government’s handpicked Indigenous Advisory Council, on the ABC’s Q and A. Price insisted her prominent support for the Intervention was based on the progress she’d seen for women and children since its introduction.

Town camp leader Barbara Shaw hit back at Price’s claims: “We now have a massive crisis in Alice Springs as people come in from the bush because of the failure of the Intervention.”

“Bess Price says Aboriginal women have been given a voice by the Intervention—but which ones? Thousands of women have lost their jobs as Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) close down, many women leaders have lost their positions of authority as community councils were closed and Government Business Managers and Shires took over. Women do need a voice—we need for the government to listen, to scrap the Intervention and empower us with resources and jobs to go forward.”

By Lauren Mellor


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