History of Indigenous work sheds light on Australian slavery

13 May 2021

The exploitation of Indigenous Australian workers offers powerful insights into Australia's history of slavery, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement and deaths in custody, leading experts from The Australian National University (ANU) say.   

The researchers have re-released their seminal book Aboriginal Workers, 25 years after it was first published in light of the global movement and the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody.    

Co-author Professor Ann McGrath from ANU said the Black Lives Matter movement had raised many similar issues still faced by Indigenous Australians today. 

"For Indigenous Australians, the BLM movement resonates powerfully. They share a history of labour exploitation and oppression, as well as racism based on their skin colour," Professor McGrath said.  

"That's why we have decided to re-release Aboriginal Workers.  

"This book was ahead of its time in many ways. It enhances our understanding of Australia's history of slavery, showing that historical revelations remain deeply informative. 

"This history is especially relevant when you consider this is the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody, and yet the statistics are only getting worse.  

"You can't understand such pressing social matters unless you understand what happened to Aboriginal people throughout Australian history." 

Aboriginal Workers brings together insights from leading researchers on the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander labour, including Bidjara/Birri Gubba Juru woman Dr Jackie Huggins.  

Dr Huggins' articles focus on her own career, as well as the experiences of her mother, Rita Huggins. 

"In answer to the recent denial that there was slavery in Australia -- my mother and her 13 siblings were slaves who worked in domestic service and stockwork," Dr Huggins said. 

According to the editors, the volume was "pioneering" in this focus on Indigenous women and girls in the workforce.  

We wanted to demonstrate the many roles in which Aboriginal men and women had worked, drawing attention to the way their labour and their payments were controlled by the state," Professor McGrath said. 

"The conversation has certainly changed since 1995. But we hope this reissue will highlight the fact that the history of slavery very much pertains to Aboriginal Australians. 

"There's still pressing questions around the long-term impacts of forced labour, and how to integrate Aboriginal history into the global conversation around slavery."  

Queensland Minister for the Arts and proud Quandamooka woman Leeanne Enoch, who was the first Aboriginal woman elected into Queensland Parliament, said Aboriginal Workers highlights the need for truth telling and the importance of Aboriginal workers and their contribution to this state. 

"Our unique stories give us a platform to connect with others and activate positive and meaningful change across our society," Minister Enoch said.  

"Now more than ever our stories need to be told, recognising that the power of words lead to that meaningful change.  

"We need a fearless commitment to telling the truth of our shared past, the sometimes ugly, uncomfortable, hard to talk about truth and written stories, such as Aboriginal Workers, are essential on this path to truth telling." 

The new edition of Aboriginal Workers is available now.