Unfree Labour and Slavery’s Second Cousins

by · June 19, 2012

This post appeared first at Overland Journal.

Slavery. It was a bad thing that happened somewhere else, in the United States or elsewhere. Or so we are told. We don’t often think of Australia as being similarly constructed on the exploitation of unfree labour, and yet the history of the development of local capitalism is exactly that. In their history of Australia, No Paradise for Workers, Ken Buckley and Ted Wheelright rightly call convict labour a ‘second cousin’ of slavery. The early years of the colonies were dominated by our version of slavery, as well as indentured labour. Australia was not just a gaol, but a land where modern development had at its core coerced work.

While wage labour emerged soon after invasion, it was not predominant over convict labour until the mid 1800s. Convicts, along with indentured labourers from India, China and, most particularly, the South Pacific, remained important to capitalist development until the latter part of the nineteenth century. The unfree labour of people from the South Pacific was particularly important in rural Queensland, where other forms of labour were scarce.

Convict labour was initially used to construct colonial state capital works, chiefly under Governor Macquarie, however by the 1820s the cost to the colonial state of convict subsistence was being criticised and deployment on public works decreased. The state was encouraged to allocate convicts to private individuals within the ‘assignment system’, especially those with large sheep stocks in the developing pastoral industry. This process saw, over time, the transfer of responsibility for the subsistence of the convicts to private hands and their exploitation by them.

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In the wake of 1788, Indigenous people were forced off their land and into areas away from an occupying population that was enclosing areas for pastoral and other activities. Or they were killed. The alienation of land and the foundation of a new society based on private property simultaneously separated Indigenous people from their cultural connection to country and their basic means of subsisting.

Robert Miles notes in Capitalism and Unfree Labour that during the early decades of the colonies there was a limited incorporation of the Indigenous population into the labour pool both as convicts and via deception, force and coercion. For example, the Aborigines Protection Act 1886 established a framework for how the Indigenous labour could be ‘retained’. The Act placed an onus on the employer to provide a contract setting out entitlements of subsistence – food, clothing and medical attention – but it was silent on the question of wages. This was in effect legislated slavery: unfree labour was provided in return for subsistence and bound Indigenous people indefinitely to white masters. Miles also details how Indigenous people housed at the ‘native’ penal settlement on Rottnest Island were taken to the mainland in 1846 to address labour shortages, forced to build public infrastructure (such as roads) and allocated to private capitalists to assist with harvests and other work.


While convict labour ended in the middle of the 1800s, the unfree labour performed by Indigenous people continued into the late twentieth century. These are not ancient stories, but recent context.

I heard an interview with Kev Carmody replayed on ABC local radio last week, where he discussed writing the song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ with Paul Kelly. The interviewer played a version by The Waifs. Afterwards Carmody declared he might never sing the song again such was the beauty and power of The Waifs’ rendition. The host noted the singer had great difficulty recording the song, such was the emotion for her each time she sang it. I feel it as well. I’ve heard it dozens of times and it never wanes. I feel tremendous joy and incredible shame. The bravery of the Gurindji seems so great, and how little has changed since 1966/1975 weighs so heavy. The Wave Hill walkoff seems even more distant in the context of the Northern Territory Intervention, or the forced removal of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Brisbane last week, or the repeated failure of state and federal governments to deal with the issue of stolen Indigenous wages.

The ‘stolen wages’ campaign seeks reimbursement of the unpaid wages of Indigenous people, held by various state and commonwealth bodies. Indigenous people worked for minimal wages (‘pocket money’) or the cost of their subsistence from the late 1880s or early 1900s (until the 1970s or 1980s depending on the state legislation). Indigenous people did not get paid wages or entitlements directly, as ‘Protection Acts’ meant the money was sent to government agencies that managed (or mismanaged) these funds on ‘behalf’ of Indigenous people. The missing wages, plus missing state and commonwealth entitlements such as maternity benefits and pensions, are the subject of claims by Indigenous people who rightly demand these are paid. Earlier this year the Western Australian government made a settlement offer, an ex gratia payment of $2,000 per person. Aside from the paucity of that figure, an ex gratia payment is one where the payment is made without accepting any liability for what has occurred. In the midst of a mining boom, such an offer seems particularly sour given that state’s economic success comes on the back of the theft of Indigenous people’s land for the purposes of mineral extraction.


The survival of Indigenous communities and culture has always struck me as remarkable given the multiple assaults embodied in colonisation. The legacy of invasion continues for Indigenous Australians. As Kevin Gilbert wrote in 1998:

As I drive towards Queanbeyan on my periodic visits to Canberra, yesterday’s crimes wash upon me, wave after wave in the new assault by memory of the old injustice and made more urgent by the new injustices heaped day by day on the contemporary Black community.

It is not just the first lie, that of terra nullius, on which modern Australia has been built. Rather, we would do well to remember the unbroken line of dispossession right up to the Intervention, to remind us again why we must fight for change.

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Discussion1 Comment

  1. SapperK9 says:

    Have you read How the West Was Lost by the late Don McLeod? Gives a new perspective to Wave Hill and union power pseudo-left politics of Gough Whitlam. Also explains how Lang Hancock started his mineral wealth…