Australia’s dark bloodshed of people of colour didn’t stop at Aboriginal Australians who, for thousands of years, have called this beautiful country home. Similar and equally terrifying events terrorised people of colour years after the invasion of Captain Cook in 1773.
In the 1840’s, Queensland sugar cane and cotton farmers grew increasingly worried at the costs of hiring Australians to work on their farms. The farmers also needed sugar cane to be distributed faster amongst local customers.
That’s where the idea of cheap labour came in.
While some South Sea Islanders arrived in Australia willing to work, numerous others were forcibly taken from their homes and placed onto boats by the Queensland government in a practice now known as ‘blackbirding’.
‘Blackbirding’ refers to the removal of people from their place of origin either by forceful kidnapping, trickery, or coercion for slavery.
Islanders were relocated to regional towns like Mackay, Bundaberg, and Townsville, while others from a ship docked on the banks of the Logan River were distributed to sugarcane and cotton fields across the region we now know as the Gold Coast.
Only 2,500 of the 62,000 men and women survived or were allowed to stay in Australia after completing their contracts. Many fell ill, were deported, or believed to have been murdered at the hands of farmers or recruiters.
And blackbirding’s effects are still felt today. Similar coercion seems apparent in the treatment of seasonal workers in the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme at the hands of labour hire companies. The scheme ‘allows eligible workers from 9 participating Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste to take up jobs in Australia.’
In Bundaberg last year, more than 50 South Sea and Pacific Islander workers sought urgent help from local human rights advocate, Amanda Slade, who found some workers were living off just $100 per week.
After a thorough investigation, Ms Slade found that the workers signed employment contracts before coming to Australia, promising them full time work and enough money to send back home to their families. The story once they arrived, however, was very different.
Ms Slade uncovered that some workers were asked to sign agreements written in English, even though English was their second language. The workers only received a few hours of work each week which meant that after rent and other deductions were paid, they barely had enough money to live on and nothing to send back to their families.
In several investigative pieces on the subject that I wrote in 2022 for the Bundaberg NewsMail , I delved further into some of the fears that rattled seasonal workers.
One man said he felt like a slave, and that he had been blackbirded, just like his forefathers. He suffered from poor living conditions and being separated from his wife day-to-day. The life he was promised in Australia turned out to be far different from what he believed when he signed the agreement back home.
Incidents such as these are not isolated and are happening daily in regional towns nationwide. Modern-day blackbirding will continue to be swept under the carpet if nothing changes.
In 2021, Bundaberg Mayor Jack Dempsey made a highly publicised historical apology to South Sea Islanders — the first of its kind in Australian history. Last year, I launched an e-petition to spread awareness and promote discussion in Federal Parliament on modern day blackbirding.
Australia’s current Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, has yet to admit that modern blackbirding still exists within a government-funded program nor to address the fears terrorising seasonal workers, particularly those of colour.
I encourage all Australians concerned about this issue to write to Mr Albanese. It’s important that the Australian Government hears your concerns.
You can also sign the e-petition here: https://www.change.org/p/end-exploitation-of-seasonal-farm-workers-in-australia
MEET THE AUTHOR
Angeline Lowther is an experienced news and sports journalist across TV, radio and print. She is also a passionate human rights advocate, having written investigative journalistic pieces on Pacific Islander seasonal worker treatment in Australia. She is of proud Melanesian descent, specifically of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu.