Indigenous Employment

The effects of the First World War on Indigenous employment varied considerably both temporally and spatially, with fluctuating employment for Aboriginal people in the southeast, but more consistently high employment in Queensland and Western Australia. After the declaration of war, mining companies in Australia reduced their workforces as key markets disappeared; the wool and building industries also slumped. By the end of 1914 the percentage of trade union members who were unemployed almost doubled to 11 per cent and, as peter Yule argues, “overall unemployment was probably significantly higher.”33 Inevitably, such conditions impacted upon Aboriginal people. In 1914 Aboriginal administrators in New South Wales expressed a fear “that large numbers of aborigines will be thrown out of employment,” resulting in a greater need for support for “deserving men and their families.”34 Unemployment was compounded by drought in 1915, prompting the Aborigines Protection Board to declare that “numbers of men who had been expelled from Reserves for misconduct, &c. were allowed to return temporarily in order that no hardship would result.”35 In time, however, the rising wartime demand for rural labour prompted the board to order all ‘halfcastes’ over the age of eighteen to leave government stations and camps.36

In South Australia the Chief Protector reported in 1915 that a combination of drought and war had caused both high unemployment for Aboriginal people and “a considerable rise in the prices of goods required for the aborigines.”37 This financial instability led the South Australian government to take direct control of the Aboriginal missions at Point Pearce and Point McLeay, which, as we shall see, led to more coercive policies by the end of the war. As the war progressed, however, employment opportunities increased. On the west coast, a bumper harvest in 1916 created a labour shortage that lured many Aboriginal men away from the Koonibba Mission, near Ceduna. This in turn led to a shortage of able workers on the mission itself.38 Several men from Point McLeay found work in the construction of the Hindmarsh Valley reservoir. In 1917 the Chief Protector reported that “able-bodied natives can obtain (if they wish) abundance of employment at a good rate of wage... particularly on the stations in the Far North.”39 In some instances, however, these opportunities were temporary; when white labourers returned to the west coast in 1919, Aboriginal people moved back to Koonibba as their employment opportunities dried up.40

Fluctuating employment for Aboriginal people was not the experience in all Australian states. Chief Protector J.W. Bleakley reported a keen demand “for all classes of aboriginal labour” in Queensland in both 1914 and 1915.41 It was not, however, a uniformly positive story. In November 1916 the Queensland government restricted the use of Aboriginal labour on sugar cane fields in the north following accusations they were being used by growers as sstrikebreakers.42 Moreover, high employment did not guarantee decent conditions of labour: in 1918 Bleakley reported that some employers “convey the impression that [the Aboriginal labourer] is regarded more as a part ofthe stock or working plant than as a human being.”43 Consistent wartime employment for Aboriginal people in Queensland reflects the historically stronger reliance on Aboriginal labour in that state, especially in the pastoral industry.44 Similar factors were influential in Western Australia, where a flourishing wartime pastoral industry, combined with the absence of white labourers, led to a greater prevalence of cash employment for Aboriginal workers; in this context, the number of Aboriginal people registered for welfare dropped by more than three-quarters.45

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >