The 40-year anniversary of the Equal Wage Decision for Northern Territory Aboriginal stockworkers has been met with scepticism from the right and the left historians. Both lament the good old days before 1966 when Aboriginal stockworkers were continuously employed and able to live on their land with their kin. Aboriginal workers, who had created profits for the industry even in periods of drought and depression, were expelled in the immediate aftermath of the decision.
The “right” blame the decision for unnecessarily regulating a functional labour market that provided reciprocal benefits for employers and Aboriginal workers. The “left” blame the decision for being introduced too slowly (with its full impact in the 1970s when the Pastoral Award came into effect) and allowing multinational corporations - such as Vestey’s - ample opportunity to lay off their workers before it took effect.
However, the “glory days” of cattle stations were contingent on a complex set of factors that could be regarded as feudal in character. First, the industry was labour intensive - it ran on the back of a horse - and required large numbers of skilled workers who could navigate the land.
Second, Aboriginal workers were able to maintain connections to their land. Workers and their kin could live on stations with their subsistence provided. Their ties with country were deepened by their capacity to go walkabout in the wet season, a privilege granted to them when labour was in low demand.
Third, government regulations authorised managers to offset wages against the maintenance of Aboriginal workers’ dependants. Families were provided for, in a manner, on the cattle stations. This created a mutually beneficial relationship where coexistence suited both parties. But it was nonetheless a relationship of exploitation.
The government was complicit as it was absolved of its protection responsibilities under regulations pursuant to the Aboriginal and Welfare Ordinances. In fact, the requirement for Aborigines to be maintained, by the provision of shelter, food and clothing rations and medical care, was never effectively policed. This prompted anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt to describe the oversight of regulations as “nominal and superficial”.
Consequently, the maintenance of dependants amounted to conditions that a patrol officer in 1940s and 50s, Ted Evans, described as a “hazard to the health of Aboriginals”. There was an absence of amenities and facilities for hygiene, including water pumps. Indeed many so-called “dependants” performed work on the station homestead or maintained the station property with tasks such as fencing, gardening, building roads and attending to dairy cattle.
When wages were eventually introduced after World War II, cash was rarely seen on stations. Recent historians, including Glen McLaren and William Cooper have revised historical accounts that stockworkers were not granted wages. They rely on records of the Northern Territory Pastoral Lessees Association to argue that workers were paid fairly and sometimes on par with non-Aboriginal workers. McLaren and Cooper overlook the fact that wages were often paid in the form of store credits, such that workers had to purchase basic commodities from the station. At the Vestey’s-owned Victoria River Downs Station, prices in the station store were inflated by up to 300 per cent.
The current Senate Inquiry into Aboriginal Stolen Wages has brought to the public’s attention the conditions of Aboriginal workers, including those on cattle stations. It has attracted submissions that point to the unwaged conditions on stations and the lack of workers’ compensation for work-related injuries. Violations of legislation and international conventions have also been alleged.
Significant changes took place on stations in the 1960s, with the result that stations were no longer able or willing to accommodate Aboriginal community needs. The Equal Wages Decision was just one factor in a range of transformations. These included changing work practices, such as the introduction of aerial and motorised mustering, a change in government policy that made it harder for employers to offset wages with maintaining dependants on stations, conditions of severe drought and the 1970s world-wide recession that deflated beef prices.
Historians, such as McLaren and Cooper, conflate the Gurindji Strike (which demanded fair working conditions and land) with the end of cattle station life for Aboriginal workers. They dismiss the strike’s objects and victories. They fail to consider the complexity of change, including the conscious decision of managers to respond to this context by laying off workers. The alternative, to maintain a sustainable labour intensive industry that drew on Aboriginal skills, rather than the environmentally destructive technologies, would have represented too much of a compromise for managers in the relationship of coexistence.
Nonetheless, the Gurindji people were aware that their future not only hinged on wages and the needs of managers. The Aboriginal communities required a continuous association with the land. This demand is portrayed in the lyrics of From Little Things Big Things Grow by Paul Kelly:
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