NT workers demand the government pay

Sign the Petition Aboriginal Workers Exploited Under SIHIP Program

Reportage Online 13 May 2011

A lobby group has launched a petition demanding back pay for the renovation and construction work completed by Indigenous workers in the Northern Territory. Sara Vincent investigates.

In a petition launched by lobby group Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (SICS), Indigenous workers in the Northern Territory (NT) are demanding back pay for the renovation and construction work completed for the government’s Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP). The group are also asking for more investment in employment across Aboriginal communities.

“… Instead of getting paid wages, you are paid through centrelink and of course if you are black and you live on the territory and you are on centrelink, you get paid on the BasicsCard,” said Paddy Gibson, senior researcher at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning.

According to SICS, the people involved in the SIHIP are having half of their work payments quarantined onto a BasicsCard, and are being underpaid for their work, with reports that some Amoonguna workers have worked for up to 50 hours a fortnight but were only paid for 15 hours.

“[Aboriginals] are in fact underpaid, when they’re doing the same amount of work, the same amount of hours. If an Aboriginal person was doing the same kind of work in the past they actually got paid a wage,” said Barb Shaw, a spokesperson for the Intervention Rollback Action group in Alice Springs.

In 2008 the BasicsCard and the SIHIP were launched as part of the Northern Territory Intervention, a set of changes to welfare provision, law enforcement, land tenure and public housing management in remote communities. The NT Intervention was introduced in 2007 by the Australian Federal government, under former prime minister John Howard.

With the BasicsCard, Indigenous people from remote areas depending on the dole (centrelink’s social security payments) can only buy certain items at selected food stores. The SIHIP, a $672 million housing program, was initiated to provide 750 new houses, rebuild 230 existing houses and refurbish 2500 properties across 73 remote NT communities by 2013.

This is not the first time the SIHIP has been involved in a public controversy. Last year, NT Auditor-General Frank McGuiness’ report revealed that the SIHIP’s budget was being mismanaged and that the slow progress in building houses was jeopardising the program’s effectiveness. But SIHIP’s spokesperson said that their housing target will be delivered on time despite past issues, and that the current allegations of underpayment are false.

“Work is complete in 26 communities and underway in a further 22 communities and a number of town camps across the Territory….”

“All Indigenous employees working for New Future Alliance (a consortium of companies part of SIHIP) at Amoonguna have been paid at or above award rates…,” the spokesperson said.

Despite the SIHIP’s spokesperson denial, NT lobbying groups stand by their claims, and according to Barb Shaw the main issue is that it was never agreed between workers and the companies that are part of the SIHIP, that their construction work would be paid through the BasicsCard.

“…Here in the NT the Aboriginal people are actually working for the dole,” said Shaw.

SIHIP’s spokesperson failed to comment on whether or not Indigenous people who worked for the SIHIP had half of their earnings sent to the BasicsCard.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, community leaders from Amoonguna in Central Australia and the Darwin office of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) are backing the petition, which has already over 2000 signatures.

“We said [The NT intervention] wouldn’t work. It hasn’t worked and it’s gotten worse …” said Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, who presented the petition to Australian Parliament this week.

“…We want proper programs genuine consultation and partnership with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.”