The fight against the racist NT Intervention has taken a step forward with the launch of new campaign demanding ‘Jobs with Justice’ for Aboriginal workers. In October, Mark Fordham, an Aboriginal worker from the Northern Territory, toured worksites to build rank-and-file union support.

Employment and assimilation

On October 29 rallies were held around the country. Two hundred people attended a lunchtime rally in Sydney, including contingents from the MUA and the Teachers Federation, 400 attended in Melbourne and 70 in Alice Springs. A national statement condemning the mass unemployment and exploitative working conditions created by the Intervention was published in The Australian newspaper on the same day. Endorsements included Unions NT, CFMEU, LHMU, NTEU and MUA as well as Aboriginal organisations like Tangentyere Council, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council and prominent individuals like filmmaker Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah).

On ABC radio last month, John Howard explained the assimilationist agenda behind the Intervention initiated by his government in 2007: “Aboriginal people have no future outside of the Australian mainstream”.

Slashing jobs in Aboriginal communities and organisations has been one of the most vicious tactics used to force through this agenda. More than 7,500 Aboriginal people were employed in the NT on Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) before they were attacked under the Intervention.

Fighting for jobs in Aboriginal communities exposes the failures at the heart of the Intervention. It has seen the campaign win a wave of new support within the trade union movement.

A maritime union member from Port Kembla, Mark, travelled down for the rally in Sydney. He told Solidarity: “It’s a terribly racist policy that needs to be overthrown. When I heard a first hand account of what was happening up there I was quite disgusted. Aboriginal issues are union issues, human rights issues. It’s an apartheid-like regime I think and it really is disgusting it’s going on in 2010.”

The campaign’s tour of Aboriginal worker Mark Fordham also won support. Mark spoke at stop work meetings on city construction sites and on the wharves in Sydney organised by the CFMEU and the MUA. Around $900 in donations to support the campaign was raised in one day from meetings at three sites. He told Solidarity the site meetings gave him a chance to explain, “That my people aren’t being given a fair go in regards to work. They’re not getting a fair pay—[I wanted] to break the myth that black people are lazy.”

When he worked on the docks himself, Mark learnt that the union tried to make sure workers on ships from Malaysia or other Asian countries were paid decent wages: “Even though they were from a different country, we still saw them as workers, no different from us, and they still have the same rights as all workers around the world.”

Mark explained that this commitment to solidarity meant unionists he met could understand what was happening to Aboriginal people in the NT.

Mark helped run CDEP projects at Ampilatwatja in the NT until he was sacked for refusing to dump raw sewage in an unsafe area. Due to attacks on CDEP, workers in Ampilatwatja, Ti Tree and other Aboriginal communities are now being made to do routine council work like maintenance and rubbish disposal for Centrelink payments. Half of this is quarantined onto a “BasicsCard”. They only receive $115 in cash a week for 16 hours work.

Mark said, “The working conditions that have developed under the Intervention are a disgrace. It makes me ashamed to be an Australian that people could be treated like second-class citizens.”

Although there was lots of municipal work that needed to be done at Ampilatwatja, Mark told how, “These Shires and governments lack vision to train people up to work on their communities. And when we do put people through courses, like the nine guys we put through machinery training at Ampilatwatja, there’s no machines, and there’s not real jobs with real wages.”

Mark also talked about his recent experience working in the community of Ti Tree, 200 kilometres north of Alice Springs: “In Ti Tree you’ve got the Central Desert Shire basically using the CDEP guys—who are getting paid on the BasicsCard—to service the communities and the town of Ti Tree itself. They save a lot of money on full time wages by picking on the CDEP guys. There’s only a handful of people employed full-time by the Shire.”

The campaign for ‘Jobs with Justice’ has positioned the fight against the Intervention well for more serious mobilisations of unions.

A delegation of 18 representatives from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) will tour Central Australian communities targeted by the Intervention from November 10-12 to investigate the impact of the policy.

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