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Background to the case

In 1964 the North Australian Workers Union presented a case for equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers. The cattle industry, the largest employer of Aboriginal labour, was not legally required to pay Northern Territory Aboriginal drovers more than £3.3.3 per week. White drovers got five times this amount. The North Australian Workers Union case before the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission would, if successful, end this discrimination.

Two years earlier the Electoral Act had extended voting rights to Aboriginal people, but industrially they were still outside the award structure which guaranteed fair wages to workers. The Australian industrial system, built up over more than half a century, also laid down working conditions, annual and sick leave and workers' compensation. Aboriginal workers, however, were specifically excluded from awards in jobs where they were most represented, such as in the pastoral industry.

Shirley Andrews and Barry Christophers, who formed the Equal Wages for Aborigines Committee, pointed out that notions of equality were hollow unless they were reflected in the pay packet. In 1963 they began campaigning for wage equality for Aboriginal workers.

At a public lecture in Melbourne in January 1965, Andrews remembered her sense of outrage when she heard of cases of labour exploitation:

Two very fine young Aboriginal stockmen were present at a conference I attended in Cairns in December, 1962. These young men were both about 25 years of age and had worked on a cattle station out from Coen in Northern Queensland since they were ten years old. They were now skilled stockmen and should have had a considerable amount of money in their trust funds. The only cash money they had ever received consisted of five pounds at Christmas and five pounds for the big local race meeting. [1]

Further resources


Shirley Andrews
Barry Christophers


1 Shirley Andrews, Council for Adult Education summer school lecture, January 1965, Council for Aboriginal Rights (Vic.) Papers, MS 12913/10/5, State Library of Victoria.

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