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From barter to award wages: Aboriginal labour and Methodist missions in Arnhem Land

Gwenda Baker, Monash University, 10 November 2009

GWENDA BAKER: I’m just going to give a brief history of Aboriginal work on Methodist missions in Arnhem Land [in the Northern Territory]. The Methodist church established missions along the Arnhem Land coast at Goulburn Island in 1916, Milingimbi in 1923, Yirrkala in 1935, and Elcho Island on a second attempt in 1942.

Aboriginal labour on Methodist missions in Arnhem Land was vital to mission development, as the number of missionaries at any time on the missions was quite small. Missionaries were building whole towns and infrastructure in remote areas with inadequate financing from church and government sources. They needed the cooperation of the Aborigines who moved to the mission sites to provide an essential workforce. The stories the Yolngu tell about work on these missions reflect that they understand that they played a crucial and largely undervalued role in the development of the missions. Aboriginal leaders now tell stories of their fathers forming contracts with the missionaries and working together to establish the towns.

A barter economy operated in early transactions on and off the missions for up to 20 years. Aborigines accepted food as payment for their labour, and crocodile skins were exchanged for axes, flour, tobacco, cloth and tools. There were advantages for Aborigines who could remain off the mission while developing new skills and exchanging goods. For the missionaries, it was a way of existing without proper monetary support. As early missionary Ella Shepherdson explained, ‘In those days, there was no money available to pay people for work done on the airstrips. Only food and hand tools were supplied.’ [shows image] That’s a photo from the 1960s, but it’s an example of one of the airstrips that were developed, cleared, maintained by groups on Country.

The change from barter trading to a cash economy came as a result of demands from the Aboriginal workers. Contact with the outside world had intensified during the war years, and patrol officer Gordon Sweeney recorded the change, noting in 1951 that ‘Arnhem natives are becoming more money conscious’. In the previous year at Elcho Island, he had witnessed the arrival of a message stick from ‘a group of natives’ living in the Buckingham Bay area. Marks made on one half of the letter stick signified two groups who were waiting, and small circles on the other half signified money, which they desired in payment.

When missionary Harold Shepherdson made the next trip to Buckingham Bay, an exchange of money for skins took place. He paid 16 pounds to the ‘head boys’, who distributed the money to the other workers.

The trade goods were then unpacked from the airplane. Flour, sugar, jam, tobacco, soap, matches, razor blades, combs, mirrors, billy cans, towels, shorts and skirts were spread out, and the men came forward and made their purchases. Following the men came their wives, who had also shared in the returns.

After the barter period, rates of pay were set by the church synod from 1951 to 1969. Rates of pay based on contract labour allowed for a variety of payment schedules, piecework and hourly rates of pay. In later years there were more weekly rates of pay.

While it suited the mission to have some permanent employees, the flexibility of contract work allowed for more Aboriginal participants in the workforce. Contract labour was used for specific projects, including the marking and building of all-weather roads and the cutting and collecting of timber on the mainland and the islands by small gangs of men who worked unsupervised for several days at a time.

An apprenticeship scheme approved at the synod in 1962 proposed a five-year training program for fitters and turners, motor mechanics, electricians, carpenters and joiners, boat builders and cabinetmaking. By the mid-1960s, following a significant increase in government subsidies, apprenticeship schemes were set up on the missions. Most apprenticing of Aboriginal workers was done in an ad hoc manner, using available missionaries to school their workers. By the late 1960s many workers had completed nursing and teaching training courses in Darwin after basic training on the missions.

Older Aboriginal men and women who remember life on the missions now complain about not being paid, or being paid very low wages and small amounts of food in return for their labour. In 1960, a value of 25 shillings a week was put on rations and housing, power and water. This was a generous estimate, as wages were not more that 27 shillings a week. From 1960 to 1965, wages were a combination of cash and rations and sometimes tobacco. From 1965, wages were cash only, but boat crews were supplied with rations at sea. Aboriginal workers were paid less than missionaries, who were paid less than equivalent workers in mainstream Australian society.

[shows slide] Aboriginal workers were paid less than missionaries, who were paid less than equivalent workers in mainstream Australian society. And this just shows two years and the comparison between Aboriginal male wages and the mission’s wages, which is a bit of a complicated procedure. The wage rates for male Aboriginal workers in this table are taken from the highest paid jobs employing the greatest number of people.

By the 1970s, the foundation for a skilled workforce had been put in place. Workers from this era take pride in talking about their roles in the workforce. Building was a priority and experienced workers could plan, set out and build houses with their own gangs and minimum supervision. [shows slide]

A team from Goulburn Island tendered for and built a staff house on a nearby government settlement at Maningrida. On Howard Island, near Elcho Island, Stephen Bunbaitjun planned and built houses on his outstation. And I haven’t written this in, but because of some of the things people have said, one of the ways Bunbaitjun financed his building was by the sale of his own watercolour paintings, which he sold to the missionaries.

In a recent submission to the Northern Territory Government, Reverend Doctor Djiniyini Gondarra, a Goumala clan leader, stated that despite the effects of white invasion and the multiple disruptions of missions, welfare and police, by the 1970s the Yolngu were:

… building all our own housing, doing all our own roadworks, carrying out most of the office work required to run the community, involved to a high level in essential service contracts with the community, and involved in the provision of health and education.

While this might be viewed [as] part of a golden-age mythology, the argument is persuasive. The Yolngu worked hard and were competent in a wide range of jobs. They could do this again if they were given more control over their lives.

At the end of the mission era, the government shut down existing industries without replacing them. The transition from fledgling training schemes to a proper industry base system was never realised. Most jobs are now filled by white workers. There is no sense of Aboriginal ownership in the work of the towns.

[shows slide] This is just a brief outline of what happens from the time when there’s a campaign for better wages. Aboriginal workers on missions were the last to receive the benefits of government workplace legislation, the last to receive the training allowance, and the last to go on to award wages and unemployment benefits. Isolation, segregation and negative constructions of Aborigines as workers and individuals in relation to the state were implicated in the delays.

Government legislation, which endeavoured to improve the treatment of Aborigines in the workplace, did little to help those on missions or government settlements. For Aboriginal workers on missions, there were few benefits arising from the Wards’ Employment Ordinance of 1953. The ordinance did not come into effect until the Aboriginal register had been completed in 1959. In 1960, missions and government settlements applied for exemption from the provisions of the ordinance on the grounds that they were not employers in the strictest sense, but providers of social welfare and training. In 1962, the Commonwealth Government accepted the missions’ proposal.

By 1963, changes to the Wards’ Employment Ordinance made the Crown, and therefore government settlements, subject to the provisions of the ordinance and the missions could no longer claim special exemption. The Department of Territories advised the minister that it was a matter of natural justice for Aboriginal workers on missions to have the same opportunities and scope for training and advancement as other Aboriginal workers in the Territory. In 1965, the Cattle Industry (Northern Territory) Award was granted to workers in the pastoral industry. Its eventual implementation was influential in changing perceptions of the values of Aboriginal workers.

In 1968, the church synod petitioned the Social Welfare branch over the disparity between mission wages and the proposed new wages for Aboriginal workers on pastoral properties. The missions would be unable to make substantial wage increases in establishing equality, and synod requested an increase in subsidies for industries and community services on mission stations. The first stage of award wage implementation came with the 1969 employment training scheme for Aborigines; a training allowance scheme designed specifically for Aborigines on settlements was introduced a month later.

Training allowance implementation on missions lagged some nine months behind the introduction of the scheme in government settlements. The Northern Territory Welfare Branch claimed that payment of unemployment and sickness benefits was delayed by factors of isolation, transport and communication. To older missionaries, the expansion of the moneyed economy would bring temptation and little satisfaction; to younger staff, training wages were pitifully low and the type of work perpetuated on the missions was demeaning. The difference between wages and conditions on and off the missions was becoming more transparent to those Aboriginal workers who had received training and worked in other locations for better wages.

From the first of December 1973, award wages were introduced for Aborigines on missions and settlements. Training positions and unproductive jobs would be abolished, including many positions occupied by women. Married women would not be eligible for unemployment benefits. The Department calculated that the workforce would reduce by a third under the scheme; in fact, it would be a two-thirds reduction. In the initial phase, 1500 award wage positions were created, a thousand on government settlements and five hundred on mission settlements. The slow road of implementation on missions prompted telegrams and letters from communities.

Award wage implementation was already in progress when meetings with Aboriginal communities began. In 1974, an inter-departmental committee was formed to look at alternative schemes of payment and the social distribution of money. Project consultative teams set up to visit the communities were advised that:

… in many Aboriginal communities the impact of an award-wage economy similar to that in urban Australia, together with unemployment benefits, could be unnecessarily disruptive of traditional lifestyles.

In some areas, award wage structures would be appropriate and acceptable to the community. But in a community with its own understanding of its goals, the principal function of the teams should be to present and stimulate community consideration of alternative methods. Neither citizens in the same economy nor sharing the same values, Aborigines would seem to be members of separate communities susceptible to the disruption of ’traditional lifestyles’.

Town councils petitioned the government to take heed of their concerns. Milingimbi Town Council urged the government to recognise that:

… Aboriginal people want an opportunity to earn wages within their community. The government should be made aware of the stress and hardship which would prevail if employment is lacking. Aboriginal people now firmly accept the money system and it is quite impractical for them to break away from it and return fully or in part to a tribal economy.

It saw problems if non-productive jobs such as administrative workers, service staff and adult literacy were not funded and if more award-wage positions were not approved, and this is a common theme through all the petitioning that went to government departments. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, which visited Yirrkala in 1974, stated that:

Award wages would mean that those employed would be properly reimbursed for their labours and fewer people will be engaged on meaningless and demeaning tasks. However, the payment of unemployment benefits would aggravate an already serious drinking problem and make it difficult to introduce alternative employment schemes.

The Committee suggested extending the phasing-in period indefinitely; the Committee appeared to be suggesting that meaningless work would continue without proper reimbursement for an indefinite time.

The future of work funding and wages could not be resolved in the short period of time allowed for consultation. Mission negotiations resulted in the creation of additional award wage positions, additional money for a continuation of training allowance and an extension in the timetable for transition to award wages. By 1974, both training allowance payments and special interim grants had been terminated. Unemployment benefits were not widely accessed until 1977.

In conclusion, Aboriginal labour on Methodist missions in Arnhem Land was both essential and effective in the process of mission development. As the missions grew and training improved, the skill level of Aboriginal workers increased. By the end of the mission era, there was high Aboriginal employment and involvement in the work of the community. In its haste to achieve wage parity with other Australian workers by moving to an award wage scheme, the government abandoned training schemes, fledgling industries and flexible work arrangements. It was unable to address the problems of the unusual circumstances of an isolated, artificially constructed workforce. Aboriginal workers questioned the outcomes of the new government model, but their input into the plans for their future went unheeded. [applause]

MODERATOR: Thank you, Gwenda. We’ll take questions from the floor now.

QUESTION BY NICK: I found that very interesting. I think one’s got to look at the other changes that took place at the same time, because the key difference, the key change that came of course with the payment of award wages – or movement towards a payment of award wages – was that missions stopped being purposive institutions and moved to being, indeed, just purposeless institutions by the people who ran them.

So you moved from institutions that were run with authority by missionaries who provided a structure and discipline within which people’s work was conducted, to a situation where councils took over running communities which were theirs in the sense of they ended up there spatially, but they didn’t own the purposes for which the institution was established and never had the authority. So I think, it’s really a comment, right, to say that one needs to bring that change in authority and community discipline into understanding the consequence of the introduction of award wages.

GWENDA BAKER: Yes, thanks for that comment, Nick. The people talk about it as a government takeover now, not as them taking over the communities, so it was a shift of authority, but it was one they couldn’t relate to as well as the mission authority.

NICK: Community councils and the councils did have quite a lot of effect. And it is always an Aboriginal style to externalise responsibility and blame, so one mustn’t just take that at face value even though it’s a complex situation, yes.

IAN: I could just perhaps add to what Nick said. In the mid-70s, when the regime was just changing – you know, the mission had now moved out all responsibility, though they remained as advisers, in Milingimbi – but work practices became largely token with that shift; so people were getting award wages, but they weren’t actually doing very much work. So people would turn up in the morning when the gong went, you know, to muster people to work, perhaps do something for an hour or so, and then go back to camp and gamble. So work practices, quite aside from wages, were transformed quite radically with that change of regime that Nick mentioned.

Date published: 19 July 2010