Indigenous workers: the ‘modern slaves’ of Australia?

6 November 2017

How can the Global Slavery Index claim Australia has so few ‘modern slaves’, when so many Indigenous men and women are pressed into labour by the Community Development Programme?

6 November 2017
Jon Altman

How can the Global Slavery Index claim Australia has so few ‘modern slaves’, when so many Indigenous men and women are pressed into labour by the Community Development Programme?

On 19 September 2017 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation released the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, a new report suggesting the world contains over 40 million victims of ‘modern slavery’, with about 25 million of them entrapped in situations of forced labour. In a second report released at the same time, the two organisations further estimated that 152 million child labourers are also at work around the world. The reports conclude that without dramatically increased efforts, the world will not achieve target 8.7 of the UN sustainable development goals, which looks to eradicate forced labour, human trafficking and child labour.

The advocacy of the Walk Free Foundation, founded in Australia by Andrew and Nicola Forrest, has helped position Australia at the forefront of global efforts to combat modern slavery. The foundation engages with governments (via the Global Slavery Index), businesses and corporations (via the Bali Process Business Forum), and global faiths (via the Global Freedom Network). The Australian government has also been extremely active in this area. In August 2017 alone the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade issued the interim report Modern Slavery and Global Supply Chains, as part of its on-going inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia; the attorney-general’s department released a public consultation paper, Modern Slavery in Supply Chain Reporting Requirements; and Australia hosted the Bali Process Government and Business Forum on people smuggling, trafficking in persons, and related transnational crimes in Perth. The influence of the Walk Free Foundation is never far away in these governmental initiatives – sometimes the language deployed by politicians such as Julie Bishop and Michael Keenan and Andrew Forrest are almost identical.

The Community Development Programme is more effective in penalising participants than in finding them meaningful work.

What’s striking about all these inquiries into ‘modern slavery’ is the overlap we see in content – but not in public concern – with the current inquiry into the appropriateness and effectiveness of the Community Development Programme (CDP). The CDP, launched in December 2014, has been described by the Human Rights Law Centre as unfair and discriminatory. It is unfair, they argue, because it requires jobless people in remote Australia to work almost twice as many hours as jobless people in non-remote Australia over the year for the same amount of income support. And it is discriminatory because it largely targets Indigenous people, who comprise 84% of the 35,000 participants, and because its “programme logic” diagram makes explicit the goal of modifying the norms of Indigenous jobless to suit the requirements of mainstream labour markets and society, while remaining silent on the norms of non-Indigenous jobless.

The CDP is also under parliamentary inquiry regarding its impact on the rights of participants and their communities, and regarding the appropriateness of the payments and penalties systems. Official information from the Department of Employment shows that nearly 300,000 penalties, mainly ‘no show, no pay’ penalties, have been imposed since 1 July 2015. Over 90% of these have been borne by Indigenous people. Each ‘no show, no pay’ penalty results in the loss of a day’s income support for people who are already living well below the poverty line. And while an estimated 4000 full-time jobs (measured by 26 weeks of continuous employment) have been generated, only 64% of these went to Indigenous jobseekers, and it is far from clear that these jobs are sustainable.

This is a programme, as I argued in my own inquiry submission, which is more effective in penalising participants than in finding them meaningful work. The level of penalisation is higher than for any previous ‘employment’ programme for remote Indigenous Australians, and it is over 20 times higher than for the corresponding ‘jobactive’ programme available for mainly non-Indigenous people in non-remote regions.

Working for the dole in rural Australia

How did this extraordinary situation come about? Somewhat remarkably, it came from a recommendation embedded in a review of Indigenous employment chaired and authored by the same Andrew Forrest who is now a global anti-slavery champion. To summarise the policy-development pathway briefly, the incoming Abbott government in 2013 committed to this review prior to the general election and announced Forrest, a strong supporter of Abbott, as its chair.
The 200-page report Creating Parity: The Forrest Review was released in August 2014. In a comment resonating with what William Davies terms ‘punitive neoliberalism’, where eonomic dependence and moral failure are conflated, Forrest writes in it:

Idle hands and a lack of the dignity that work brings have contributed to the dysfunction of many remote communities. Compounding the pernicious effects of welfare, remote Australia is now an easy target for those peddling drugs, illegally sold alcohol and gambling. Full-time Work for the Dole activities from day one of unemployment will keep people active.

Forrest also recommended that income-support payments for the jobless should not be paid in cash but via a so-called Healthy Welfare Card (now the Cashless Debit Card).
The Commonwealth bureaucracy was given carte blanche to convert Forrest’s recommendations into policy. In his media release announcing the CDP, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion berated the previous government for its creation of the Remote Jobs and Communities Programme in 2013, which he argued failed local communities because it was not geared to the unique social and labour-market conditions of remote Australia:

Labor simply put the urban model of employment services into remote Australia. The result was widespread disconnection and a return to passive welfare. The Forrest Review – Creating Parity highlighted that idleness is again entrenched in many remote communities, significantly contributing to the erosion of social norms.

The CDP puts in place an approach that is quite exceptional. The jobless, irrespective of their English-language proficiency, are required to sign contractual ‘job plans’ with employment agents termed ‘providers’. These clearly specify the work requirements and penalties for infraction – there are no options to be negotiated. And for an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 jobless aged 18 to 49, work requirements are specified at five hours a day, five days a week, 46 weeks in the year, potentially year in, year out. There is no end date. Arguably, this is better than the full-time option of 35 hours a week that Forrest sought, and better than the 52 weeks a year initially announced by Scullion, but it is still close to twice the work requirement (1150 hours a year) of those in the jobactive programme (650 hours).
Three additional points about the design of the CDP are worth noting before we move on.
First, unlike those on the former Community Development Employment Projects scheme, those working within the CDP are still classified as unemployed, yet are required to work for income support at an hourly rate of about A$11, well below the current legal minimum wage of A$18.29. If the Forrest recommendation had been implemented, that rate would have been A$7.80 per hour.

Second, what constitutes work is dictated by external programme guidelines and providers, not Indigenous jobless. This means that many people end up working for public- and private-sector employers alongside others who enjoy full labour rights and protections, and results in some goods being sold that were produced at exploitative, below-minimum wage rates. Furthermore, Indigenous forms of work in self-provisioning as well as Indigenous cultural or domestic activities are not recognised as legitimate occupations.

Third, the CDP programme is frequently implemented by community-based organisations that profit from the sheer amount of jobless in the programme, rather than through the amount of sustainable and decent work they create. These providers are paid to train and employ individuals in what is termed ‘work-like’ activity by the government, which often amounts to little more than menial municipal tasks like collecting rubbish. Increasingly called ‘bullshit work’ by the participants, many feel little desire to work simply for the sake of doing work. Perniciously, though, providers are also paid for providing the government with attendance records so penalties may be levied against no-shows.

The CDP: a government-sponsored forced labour programme?

The International Labour Organisation defines forced labour as “all work or service that is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”. By that definition the CDP is a form of forced labour, for if people do not turn up for work and exercise their basic human right to withdraw their labour (i.e. they choose not to offer themselves “voluntarily”), they are punished with penalties (the loss of all income and welfare support).

It is crucial to understand that working for the CDP is not like any other job, where employers would justifiably stop paying someone who wasn’t showing up for work. In this case, refusal to participate results in a person being placed entirely outside the safety net of welfare support, and takes place in a context where very few – if any – alternative jobs are available. Such a situation gives people no choice but to consent to performing make-work without the benefits that accompany ‘normal’ labour, and also diverts people away from non-market work that could be more productive.

The CDP furthermore does not allow workers to take home and use what little pay they earn in ways they see fit: part of it is mandatorily ‘managed’ for them via the BasicsCard (50% of income) or the Cashless Debit Card (80% of income), neither of which allow certain types of expenditure from taking place. For Indigenous jobless, such an approach replicates past discriminatory treatment they experienced as non-citizen wards of the state: ineligible for award wages and paid in kind with rations rather than cash.
What would happen to Australian’s global reputation if the 35,000, mainly Indigenous people on the CDP were added to the number Walk Free quotes in its index?

‘Modern slavery’ is not a legal concept, despite all the policy-making around it, yet the ILO/Walk Free Global Estimates of Modern Slavery mentioned in the introduction to this piece include forced labour within its working definition. Thus, from the perspective of the ILO, the Walk Free Foundation, and by association Andrew Forrest, the CDP should also count as a form of modern slavery.

In its 2016 Global Slavery Index, the Walk Free Foundation estimates that there are only 4,300 people in modern slavery in Australia. “Modern slavery”, it notes in its submission to the Australian Modern Slavery Act inquiry, “refers to situations where one person has taken away another person’s freedom—their freedom to control their body, their freedom to choose to refuse certain work or to stop working—so that they can be exploited. Freedom is taken away by threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power and deception. The net result is that a person cannot refuse or leave the situation”. This sounds very much like the CDP. What would happen to Australian’s global reputation if the 35,000, mainly Indigenous people on the CDP were added to the number Walk Free quotes in its index?
The Australian government is working closely with the Walk Free Foundation and its high-profile chairman Andrew Forrest to eradicate ‘modern slavery’ globally. And yet domestically Forrest wrote the recommendations upon which the CDP – a programme that should comfortably fall within Walk Free’s own definition of modern slavery – is based. This raises big questions around the alliance between the government and the Walk Free Foundation, as well as asks why a mining magnate was commissioned to address the difficult issue of employment creation for remote Australia in the first place.

The ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169), as yet unratified by Australia, calls for respect for the cultures and ways of life of Indigenous and tribal peoples. It aims to overcome discriminatory practices affecting these peoples and to enable them to participate in decision making that affects their lives. The CDP is the antithesis of this. It is a form of forced labour that the Australian state and the Walk Free Foundation would likely declare ‘modern slavery’ if it were taking place somewhere else. Instead it is taking place at home, and they have helped to create it.

Today in remote Indigenous communities there are few job possibilities. Indigenous jobless have been offered a draconian choice: find a job (even if none exists), work 25 hours a week for the dole indefinitely, or receive no income support whatsoever. The earlier Community Development Employment Projects scheme was a relative success because its establishment 40 years ago was based on a hard-headed recognition that there are few jobs in remote Australia. And so it aimed to provide a sensible intermediate position between the extremes of standard work for some and welfare and poverty for most.
The challenge for the Senate inquiry into the appropriateness and effectiveness of the CDP – that reports in mid-November 2017 – is to ensure that the programme is replaced by a version of the earlier and more successful CDEP scheme. There are several proposals in submissions made to the inquiry. The CDP is a destructive programme. It violates human rights and stands in the way of alternative development and livelihood pathways. It should be abolished immediately.

A longer version of this piece was published in Arena Magazine number 150, Oct/Nov 2017.

About the author
Jon Altman is a research professor at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization and an emeritus professor at the Australian National University.

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