The CFMEU, Unions NT and the Intervention Rollback Action Group have launched a joint petition demanding justice for Indigenous workers ripped off under the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP).
SIHIP is a key component of the federal government’s Northern Territory Intervention. Six hundred and seventy-two million dollars was budgeted to deliver renovations to housing in most NT Indigenous communities, as well as new housing in urban town camps and 16 large communities earmarked as “growth towns”.
But rather than helping to alleviate the overcrowding, squalid conditions and unemployment that cripples Aboriginal life in the NT, the unprecedented investment in SIHIP has only further disempowered Aboriginal people—and helped line the pockets of major construction firms and government bureaucrats.
In the community of Wadeye, 30 per cent of SIHIP funds were budgeted for administration alone, according to documents obtained by The Australian. One senior official received an $897,400 salary package for less than two years work and a work experience student was paid $25,500 for three months.
Yet in the community of Amoonguna, just outside of Alice Springs, Aboriginal workers undertaking SIHIP renovations were mostly only paid their Centrelink Newstart allowance, half quarantined onto a BasicsCard.
One of these workers, Sheldon Stuart, explained to Solidarity: “For three months we patched all the walls, patched the ceiling, painted all inside. When we first got paid, there was $300 on top of our Centrelink every fortnight. Then that money started going down and down and went out completely. It was just working for the dole. I was on the BasicsCard too. It was a complete rip-off.”
Another worker, Marilyn Dixon said: “I was working with a team of ladies form 8am to 3pm each day. We were cleaning, stripping paint, painting floors, moving furniture, removing old kitchens. I thought that we were going to be getting good pay. But they kept me on the BasicsCard.”
These workers have been kept on the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) instead of being employed by New Future’s Alliance, a business contracted to deliver renovations at Amoonguna. Reforms to CDEP introduced by Labor have transformed it from a community-controlled scheme that paid substandard wages to straight-out work for the dole.
The Labor government has lauded an alleged 30 per cent Indigenous employment rate as part of SIHIP—but Indigenous Employment minister Mark Arbib confirmed during Senate Estimates in November that this figure includes CDEP workers. He falsely claimed that they have been paid at award rates for all SIHIP work.
The level of exploitation is an outrage. A strong campaign involving the unions is needed to force a change.
Along with taking up the cause of the Amoonguna workers, the CFMEU has begun to recruit Aboriginal workers working on SIHIP in the Alice Springs town camps. Despite being on apprentice rates of $16.50 an hour, Indigenous trainees complain they are not developing any new skills. Instead they are put to work doing menial tasks with shovels, rakes and crowbars or cleaning up after highly paid contractors. When rain stops work, they are sent home without pay.
The quality of SIHIP work is also under fire. At Santa Teresa, 90 kilometres outside of Alice Springs, residents say that contractors left many houses in a worse condition than before the renovations—despite a budget of $75,000 for each house.
Resident Imelda Palmer explained: “It’s just been terrible. They came in and ripped the tiles off kitchen and bedroom floors without asking. Now our people are left to mop the concrete. They took out many air-cooling systems that people had bought with their own money and threw them in the dump. After changes in the bathrooms, families are complaining that water runs out into the hallway whenever they have a shower.” Similar complaints are pouring in from across the Territory.
Aboriginal people have no say in SIHIP administration. Control of all Aboriginal housing across the NT has been transferred from the now disbanded Aboriginal community councils to the NT housing department. Rents have risen dramatically, in some cases by 400 per cent. Forty-year leases must be signed over township land before any work can start on new houses.
The union-backed petition is calling for back pay for all work done by CDEP workers, an end to arrangements forcing people to work for the BasicsCard and investment in Aboriginal-controlled employment programs in all communities. Workers from Amoonguna joined an NT delegation at the ACTU Indigenous workers conference in Darwin from February 16-18 to build support for the fight.
By Paddy Gibson