2001 ASSLH conference – The ‘freeing’ of unfree labour: Aborigines in the Northern Territory cattle industry, 1948–1978

Rob Castle and Jim Hagan
University of Wollongong

The freeing of unfree labour has received less attention in the unfree labour debate than other issues such as the conditions under which unfree labour worked. This paper focuses on the phasing out of unfree labour in the Northern Territory cattle industry and comparing this process with the Assamese tea industry. It builds on the work of Stevens, May and McGrath in the cattle industry and writers such as Behal and Mohapatra in the Assam case. The comparison enables us to make some conclusions about the freeing of unfree labour across two export industries located in different legal regimes which removes some of the usual national constraints which have tended to limit the debate.

The employment of Aborigines in the cattle industry attracted the attention of relatively few people until the 1950s. Then the work of the Berndts in their investigation of Northern Territory cattle stations and the writings of PM Hasluck (Minister for Territories in the Australian Government) complemented the first enduring political organisation among Aborigines themselves. By far the most voluminous source for the period up to 1965 is the transcript of the so-called Equal Pay Case, which itself inspired a considerable literature, as for example in the work of Frank Hardy. The latter’s The Unlucky Australians helped make the Gurindji people famous in television features around the world, which helps explain why subsequent literature is more concerned with the land rights of Aborigines than with the conditions of their employment. To trace the consequences of the “Equal Pay” decision, we have relied on the Report of the Gibb Enquiry (1971), assessments of the Commonwealth Employment Service, the records of Government departments, and the archives of the Northern Australian Workers’ Union.

By the time of the Second World War, the cattle industry in the Northern Territory of Australia had been established for about seventy years. Larger companies had taken over smaller holdings, and the largest of them controlled areas greater than the whole of England. British companies owned the largest stations, and some of them at least allowed their local managers very little discretion.1  Aggregation helped counter the disadvantages that confronted the industry. In some areas, noxious grasses poisoned stock; over most of the territory, a dry-wet seasonal rainfall turned country arid, on into swamp. Cattle stations were remote from rail, ports or markets; the long drives to them often ruined the condition of the cattle, and sometimes killed them. Territory cattlemen argued that if their industry were to survive, it had to have a subsidy. This came conveniently in the form of the labour that the territory Aborigines supplied.2

The first Territory cattlemen had occupied land roamed over by local tribes, and dispossessed them by violence if they thought it necessary.3  But the local tribes, or their remnants, had remained to work on the newly-established stations, and although pastoralists found them unsatisfactory in some ways, they also found them extremely useful in others.Their intimate knowledge of their country allowed them to track and find cattle, and their ceremonial duties to it meant that their seasonal wanderings fitted well with the demands of the station’s work timetable. They were available for work in the busy dry season, and off the station’s books when work was slack in the wet. This reduced still further the price of labour that was already almost without cost. Regulations made under the Aboriginal Ordinances of 1918 and 1933 prescribed a wage of five shillings a week, but allowed the employer to pay its equivalent in kind or waive payment altogether if he maintained his Aboriginal workers’ relatives. Those Aborigines who were paid wages did not see them as a regular cash payment; they were paid to the Protector, to be banked to the Aborigine’s credit.5

In practice, few if any employers in the cattle industry were paying their Aboriginal employees wages when Japan entered the Second World War in 1941. “Maintenance” of both workers and their families was generally of abysmal quality, and even the obligation under the Ordinance to provide “rainproof shelter” was not always met. According to VG Carrington, whom the Commonwealth Government commissioned to report on the employment of Aborigines in 1945, only the right to quit distinguished the conditions of employment of most Aborigines in the Territory’s cattle industry from those of slaves.6

Not all could exercise that right. Some Aborigines did succeed in withdrawing their labour, but for others, walking off the job was practically impossible. It was always a very long way from the station to anywhere else. Employers organised against what a later Ordinance would describe as the “enticement” of labour, and police co-operated with employers in returning runaways. Employers commonly enforced discipline on the job through violence, or threat of violence; they were particularly rough with those who tried to leave their employment during the busy season.7

From early 1942, however, the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force became alternative employers of Aborigines in much of the Northern Territory. Threat of invasion by the Japanese led to the hurried construction of airstrips and thousands of miles of road. The Air Force and the Army together employed more Aborigines than the cattle industry, mainly as labourers. They enjoyed the same food, clothing and shelter as their white counterparts. Moreover, both the Air Force and the Army paid wages in cash. 8

The civilian administration of the Territory had all but collapsed after the Japanese bombed Darwin, and in 1942 neither Service paid too much attention to the Ordinances and Regulations. Because co-ordination within and between the Services was at first minimal some Aborigines got their wages as cash in the hand, and for a while some of them even received the going rate for equivalent white labour. The soldiers and airmen, recruited from outside the Territory, worked alongside Aborigines without enforcing the prejudices of their pastoral employers.9

Aborigines did not forget their wartime experiences when the War ended. In Darwin, they went on strike in 1947, and again in 1950.10  In 1949, the Administrator of the Territory noted that there had been

Some unsettlement…as a result of payment of wages by the Army…frequently the natives will not work for an employer who does not pay wages.11

It was because the Administration had anticipated this “unsettlement”, that it had commissioned VG Carrington to report on the working conditions of Aborigines on cattle stations. Carrington found many breaches of the Regulations, especially those relating to food, accommodation and hygiene. He recommended that these conditions be greatly improved, and that employers pay Aborigines a minimum wage, without the option of payment in kind. The rates he suggested were two pounds ten shillings per week for men over 21, and ten shillings a week for women.

The cattlemen objected, and it was not until 1947 that a conference between them and the Administration settled on a compromise which was to pay Aboriginal stockmen with more than three years experience one pound a week, with keep. Even so, it was not until 1949 that the Government gazetted the necessary regulations. The Basic Wage which had to be paid as a minimum to every white adult male in the “Top End” of the Northern Territory was then almost eight pounds per week, without keep.

The War had done more than “unsettle” the Aborigines industrially. In unmeasurable but powerful ways it had influenced the attitude of Australians towards the subordination of a racial group. More Australians than ever before had had direct contact with Aborigines and a sense of equality had developed among wartime comrades. The Declaration of Human Rights and the trials of Nazis for war crimes they had justified on the basis of racial superiority strengthened the arguments of those who argued that Aborigines should make some real and immediate progress towards the attainment of full citizenship. One of these was PM Hasluck, who became Minister for Territories in 1953.

At Hasluck’s insistence, the Commonwealth Government repealed the Aboriginal Ordinance and replaced it with the Welfare Ordinance, 1953. The new Ordinance did not use the term “Aboriginal”. It specified that those deemed to be “in need of assistance” would be enrolled in a Register of Wards (more commonly known as the “Stud Book”). This created a legally-defined distinction between full-blood Aborigines, and those of mixed descent, who were automatically exempt from all legislation relating to Wards unless they were specifically declared to be subject to it.12

Complimenting the Welfare Ordinance was the Wards’ Employment Ordinance of the same year. This Ordinance, and the Regulations made pursuant to it, determined the wages and working conditions of those Aborigines named in the Register. As with the previous Ordinance, it empowered the Protector to bank the wages of the Aboriginal employees in their names, and release their savings to them on approval. Section 46 made it illegal for a person to “entice or persuade a ward to leave his lawful employment”.13

The Administration and the Pastoralists’ Association’s representatives haggled over the Regulations to be made under the Ordinance until 1959. When they finally became law, they provided that employers should pay their adult Aboriginal stockmen a wage of two pounds eight shillings and threepence a week with keep, and pay an additional sum of 15 shillings for one wife or child, or maintain them. Although this represented an increase in money terms of over 100 per cent, the Ward’s wage as set by the Regulations still compared very poorly with white adult male wages in the “Top End” of the Territory.14

In some places in the Territory, the contrast was not quite as stark. Although a previous Ordinance had preserved the right of Aborigines to bargain over wages, in practice they did not. Many, perhaps most, wards did not know what they should be paid, or what others received for doing the same work. But occasionally Patrol Officers employed by the Administration were able to secure higher wages for them than the sum the Regulations specified. At some stations on the Barkly Tableland, Patrol Officers negotiated a base sum of two pounds fifteen shillings.15  Even so, the sum was low enough to outrage several organisations that had begun to take a keen interest in the employment of Aborigines in the Northern Territory cattle industry. Some of these, like the Council for Aboriginal Rights, had a specific interest in Aboriginal welfare. They claimed that conditions of employment for Aborigines breached International Labour Office Conventions 107 and 111, which prohibited the payment of different wages for the same work on the grounds of race and declared it a violation of human rights.16  The Labor Opposition, the Communist Party of Australia, and various trade unions called upon the Commonwealth Government to ratify the conventions and apply them.

The trade union most immediately and most self-interested was the Northern Australian Workers’ Union (NAWU). Although its rules then prevented Aborigines from joining, in 1928 it had applied to the Commonwealth Arbitration Court to have the Pastoral Award altered to cover Aborigines, and therefore to have them paid at Award rates. Noting that this would have virtually excluded Aborigines from the industry, Judge Dethridge refused the application. Twenty years later, when the influence of the Communist Party within it was strong, the Union changed its rules so that Aborigines could become members. In 1948 and 1951 it applied again to have the Award varied so that it would cover them. Both applications failed.

In practice, there was little NAWU could do to help improve the working conditions of Aborigines in the cattle industry. It was a small union with small resources, the distances between cattle stations immense, and the costs of organising in the industry prohibitive. In the 1950s, some employers continued to flout regulations on accommodation and food, to pay irregularly and underpay, and discipline by violence. The enforcement of the conditions that the Regulations required depended on the effectiveness of the Patrol Officers employed by the Administration.

Patrol Officers supplemented and partly replaced the work of policemen who had acted as Protectors until the 1950s. Some had had long experience with Aborigines in the Territory, and an increasing number had tertiary education. By the late fifties there were enough of them for the Administration to be able to schedule a visit to each station once every two years. Their effectiveness varied; some insisted on setting up their own camp away from the station manager’s house, while others accepted the manager’s hospitality, and allowed him to be present while they discussed conditions of employment and accommodation with the Aborigines.17 The Administration’s lack of will to prosecute for breach of regulations and the subordination of the local managers’ authority to owners distant 10,000 miles in any case severely limited what they could achieve.18  But they did see that the larger firms kept wages books in conformity with the Regulation, and even their critics admitted that they put “the fear of Christ” into the managers over violence. In the 1950s there were some salutary Court decisions resulting from prosecutions for cruelty,19  and in the early sixties a series of legislative changes reflected a further discarding of old notions that Aborigines could be rightfully abused because they were a lesser breed.

These changes significantly advanced Territory Aborigines towards equal citizenship. They acquired the right to vote in Commonwealth and Territory elections, and unless they were nomadic, to take advantage of the full range of Commonwealth social services. The Government repealed the Welfare Ordinance in 1963, and removed restrictions placed on them by other legislation. In 1964, the Protector lost the right to acquire the wages of his Aboriginal wards and release money from their bank accounts at his discretion.

Aborigines had gained control over their wages, but they remained unable to bargain for them, or receive them according to the prevailing Award. That required the amendment or repeal of the Wards’ Employment Ordinance, and that in turn, the Government decided, would have to wait on the result of the claim for variation of the Pastoral Award that the NAWU had brought before the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission.

Once again, the Union had asked the Commission to delete those words that excepted Aborigines from the operation of the Award. Once more, the Pastoralists’ Associations had objected. They argued that the work of Aborigines was not equal in value to that of whites on the same job; that the nature of the industry was such that it could not afford to pay the higher rates; and that if it were forced to, mass “disemployment” would follow.20

The Commission said that it was impressed by the employers’ evidence but the time had arrived when there had to be one industrial law for all Australians. It agreed to delete the words excepting Aborigines, but with effect only from the first pay period in December 1968. It suggested that in the intervening three years, the parties should confer and reach agreement on a plan to phase in equal pay.

Some Aborigines found three years too long to wait, and walked off two stations, leaving them without Aboriginal labour for the coming dry season. The third walk-off, at Wave Hill, attracted wide support from the Communist Party and unions in the Southern states, and television coverage made it world famous. When they walked off Wave Hill Station, the Gurindji people camped on traditional tribal land, and claimed it back from “the Bestey (Vestey) mob” that operated the Station.21  Although their dispute began over pay, it had by July 1966 broadened to one over control of land, and the Gurindjis determined to remain where they were until their land claim was settled.

The Gurindjis’ decision was reinforced by the dispute between the cattlemen, the unions and the Administration over the phasing in of the Commission’s decision. The NAWU rejected the first offer by the employers, but it was reluctant to extend the strike because of the costs involved in supporting the strikers. The parties reached agreement in September 1966 on a complicated wage structure based on the evaluation of the degree of skill of the employees. Those Aborigines whose skill was deemed to be the equivalent of white workers in the industry—some 20 per cent—were to receive equal pay. The others were graded in two categories, each receiving a smaller increase. For those in the lowest category there was an increase of about eight dollars a week on the rates prescribed by the Wards’ Employment Ordinance. Employers and the Administration supplemented the wages of men with wives and children.22  The parties met again in September 1967, and adjusted the second and third categories to bring them closer to Award rates. Full Award rates applied to all employees from the first pay period in December 1968.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to be precise about the effect that the payment of Award rates had on the employment of Aborigines in the cattle industry. Estimating the number of Aborigines in any particular district at any one time is difficult, and a decrease does not necessarily point to unemployment as its cause. There had been some voluntary movement of Aborigines since the severe Central Australian droughts of the early fifties, and regional differences in rainfall continued to complicate judgement about the cause of movement out of pastoral districts in the seventies. But by the mid-seventies, the trend towards the permanent “disemployment” of Aborigines in the cattle industry was unmistakable.23

Its causes lay not in the simple substitution of white for black labour but in a massive investment in improving the technology of the industry. This dated from about 1959, when the Administration raised the minimum rate payable under the Wards Employment Ordinance to two pounds per week with keep, or about one sixth of the basic wage for whites. But the investment program was not aimed only at reducing the need for Aboriginal labour. In giving evidence to the Arbitration Commission in 1965, Mr RT Schmidt, an Executive Committee member of the Northern Territory Pastoral Lessees’ Association, said

No, I would not say we were intending to switch in any way, but we are probably working towards a stage where we employ a minimum of any type of labour…24

It was the big employers who invested most conspicuously. In the four to five years before the Commission’s hearing, Victoria River Downs invested some £800,000 in improvements. Brunette Downs invested about £750,000 in the same period, and estimates by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics confirm similar investments in other areas.25  Much of the money went into the building of fences and trap yards, and the sinking of bores to supply water which would attract the cattle to them. The greater ease of mustering alone halved the demand for labour.26  The use of Land Rovers, motor bikes, and helicopters lowered it still further. The Government’s program of building beef roads had so far advanced by 1968 that 76 per cent of all cattle moved made all or part of their journey by road train.27  Even three years before, the Commission had heard that there were a mere 43 Aboriginal drovers left in the Territory. 28

As Australian citizens with full rights since the repeal of the Welfare and Employment Ordinances, Aborigines displaced by “disemployment” on cattle stations could claim the full range of social service assistance, including unemployment benefits. Governments in the seventies initiated special educational and training schemes for Aborigines, encouraged the formation of co-operatives, and bought and set aside land for the establishment of Aboriginal cattle stations. In 1976, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act made it possible for Aborigines to acquire traditional lands, and they began to collect royalties from mining on the land they held. By 1981, they had acquired some 30 per cent of the Northern Territory’s total area.29

In both the tea gardens of Assam and in the Northern Territory’s cattle industry British firms dominated production. Control of policy was remote; the industries operated to sell on an export market against international competition, and earned consistently high profits.

Their profitability derived largely from their ability to hold down the wages of their employees—for the entire period in Assam, and for most of it in the Northern Territory. After about 30 years in which governments legislated to “free” labour, the wages of coolies in the tea gardens were still significantly less than those of agricultural labourers in the Province. In the Northern Territory, it was rare for Aboriginal employees in the cattle industry to receive cash wages at all before the fifties. Even when the practice became common, they were not free to dispose of what they earned; and until 1968, what they earned remained (except for a minority), well below going rates for their white equivalents.

Their consistently low wages stemmed from inability to bargain. In Assam, coolies recruited under the Act of 1901 signed indentures which fixed their wage rates for some years, and breach of contract remained punishable by gaoling until 1926. When legislation removed criminal penalties, flooding of the labour market by controlled oversupply effectively weakened any attempt at bargaining. In the Northern Territory, distance ensured that each station manager was a monopoly employer.

The coolies and the Aborigines might have been able to temper these disadvantages had they been able to organise industrially and remove their labour. But they had little, or no, knowledge of other wages, and in practice they were not free to leave their employment. Although in Assam all of them had been free to do so since 1926, tea garden coolies remained restrained by ignorance of the law and the repressive and intimidating tactics of employers until the 1940s. Legal provision forbade “enticement” of Aborigines until 1966, and until the end of the fifties, violence and the fear of violence restrained those who thought of “walking off”.

For the entire period in Assam, and for most of it in the Northern Territory, there was no industrial organisation that could help strengthen the bargaining power of the employees. The Indian Trade union movement remained small and divided, and incapable of taking on the huge task of organising that the tea plantations presented. With the exception of the events about the time of the Chargola Exodus, which were heavily charged with nationalist and religious fervour, industrial disputes remained small and isolated, occurring mainly in response to some act of cruelty committed by a manager or overseer. In the Northern Territory, there were also some “walk-offs” in reaction to ill-treatment, but whatever industrial action there was remained unco-ordinated and not diverted towards bargaining over wages or conditions. There was a union in the Territory, but it was predominantly white, divided over its attitude towards Aboriginal labour, and in any case too small and too poor to confront employers in the cattle industry.

As in Assam, these were organised in regional associations, with a central body representing employers throughout the area. In both Assam and in the Northern Territory, they were able to exert considerable pressure on governments. In Assam, representatives of the Associations dominated the Boards the government set up to control the labour supply, and legislation harmonised with their policies. In the Northern Territory, representatives of the associations were able to significantly delay the operation of ordinances and regulations which would raise the cost of labour, and only their pressure can explain the otherwise mysterious reluctance of the Administration to lay even a single prosecution for flagrant and near universal breach of its regulations for the housing of Aborigines on cattle stations.

The governments in the Northern Territory and in Assam both accepted a responsibility for the proper housing and the health of employees in the two industries. Both made recommendations and regulations intended to ensure that employees were free to work without undue risk to health. In both the Territory and the Province, reality was starkly different from printed regulation. Besides being subject to the political and social pressures of the employers, enforcing officers were far too few in number to visit stations and gardens frequently enough. In Assam, the visits did not even have a basis in law.

Despite these similarities in government practice, there were some important differences in the role of the State in the Territory and the Province. In Australia, Government policy aimed at the assimilation of Aborigines into Australian society on equal terms with other citizens. In the fifties and the early sixties governments legislated to remove legal discrimination against Aborigines in social and political matters. This left isolated and obvious their lack of freedom as employees.

In moving to liberalise legislation affecting Aborigines, governments were responding to both national and international pressures. Although there had been some international interest in the working conditions of coolies in Assam when governments were making their labour free, after the Second World War international interest in the corresponding Australian process was much greater. Another important difference was the capacity of the Australian trade union movement outside the Territory to co-operate with other organisations to support a movement aimed at removing restraints which prevented Aborigines from enjoying the industrial rights of other Australian citizens. A third difference was the existence of the Arbitration Commission itself, which had a degree of independence that no institution in Assam had possessed.

The judgement of the Commission was the logical extension to industrial matters of changing law and public opinion. But in their new industrial freedom, Aborigines in the cattle industry more often found unemployment than higher wages and improved working conditions. In Assam, a static technology ensured the continuing employment of the tea garden coolies although at rates that were abysmal. In the Northern Territory, a program of massive investment in technological change, which had begun well before the Commission’s judgement, drastically reduced employment in an industry that had depended heavily on the supply of cheap Aboriginal labour. Free labour meant higher wages only for a minority, and for a majority no work and no wages at all, but instead dependence on unemployment benefit, and “training schemes” for other jobs that failed to materialise. The distinction between freedom and unfreedom for workers in remote areas of the Empire where the power of employers was not counterbalanced by the resolution of a powerful State was at best ambiguous. Legal freedom, when it came, did not translate into economic independence. Endnotes

1  F.S. Stevens, Aborigines in the Northern Territory Cattle Industry, Canberra, 1974, p.183.
2 “Report of the Board of Inquiry Appointed to Inquire into the Land and Land Industries of the Northern Territory of Australia, 10 October 1937”, Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers, 1937-40.
3 For a discussion of the origins of the Northern Territory cattle industry see R. Duncan, The Northern Territory Pastoral Industry 1869-1910, Melbourne, 1967 and J.H. Kelly, Beef in Northern Australia, Canberra, 1971. For examples of violent dispossession, see John Harris, One Blood, Sutherland, 1990, p.691ff.
4 Evidence of P.J.S. Morris, in the matter of the Cattle Station Industry (Northern Territory) Award 1951, C.No 830, transcript, p.1311.
5 Regulations under the Aboriginals Ordinance, 1918-33, Clauses 14 and 20, Commonwealth Gazette, 29 June, 1933.
6 V.G. Carrington to Administrator, 10 October 1945, in Bovril Australian Estate Records, File 42/14/1, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University.
7 L.A. Riddett, Kine, Kin and Country: The Victoria River District of the Northern Territory, 1911-1966, Darwin, 1990, p.90.
8 For a discussion of the employment of Aborigines in the Second World War, see R.A. Hall, The Black Diggers, Sydney, 1989, Chapters VII and VIII.
9 E.M. Andrews, A History of the Department of Defence, Oxford, forthcoming, Chapter Five.
10 Department of Aboriginal Affairs, File F1 1958/1710, Australian Archives, Darwin.
11 Ibid, 7 February, 1949.
12 Welfare Ordinance 1953-60, Commonwealth Government Gazette, 1960, p.2307ff.
13 Wards” Employment Ordinance, 1953-59, Commonwealth Government Gazette, 1959, p.2271ff. Section 40 provided a penalty of fifty pounds.
14 Commonwealth Year Book, No.38, 1951, p.431. The “Top End” rate, set on 1 November 1949, was seven pounds nineteen shillings and nine pence.
 15 Various witnesses at the Commission’s hearing in 1965 were ignorant of the rates prescribed by the Wards’ Employment Ordinance. See also Stevens, op.cit., p.153.
16 Report of the Administrator of the Northern Territory for 1958/59, Canberra, 1959.
17 International Labour Office, List of Ratifications by Convention and by Country, Geneva, 1995.
18 Colin Macleod, Patrol in the Dreamtime, Melbourne, 1997, p.157.
19 Stevens, op.cit. p.162; on violence towards Aborigines in the fifties see also Macleod, op.cit., p.41 and Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Welfare Branch, File 66/1094.
20 Statement by Kerr QC for the employers, C.No.830, transcript, pp.144-171.
21 Frank Hardy, The Unlucky Australians, Melbourne, 1968, p.151ff.
22 W.E.L. de Vos, Letter to the Editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 October, 1966; and “Wage Rates with Keep for Aborigines—Effective 1st January 1967”, Northern Territory Pastoral Lessees Association Circular, Joan McIbrath Collection, Macquarie University Library.
23 For statistics on Aboriginal unemployment, see “Report of the Committee to Review the Situation of Aborigines on Pastoral Properties in the Northern Territory”, (the “Gibb Report”) Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers, 1971.
24 Transcript C.No.830, p.863. See also Kerr QC, File 1, p.64 of transcript.
25 Evidence of H.C. Blackwell and P.L. Bailleu, ibid., p.654; and Bureau of Agricultural Economics, The Northern Territory Beef Cattle Industry 19623 to 1964-5, Canberra, 1968, Part V.
26 Evidence of D.J. Driver, ibid., p.317.
27 Bureau of Agricultural Economics, op.cit., pa.
28 C.N.830, transcript, p.144.
29 (ed) Ann McGrath, Contested Ground, Sydney, 1995, p.293.