Aboriginal people say they are working for the BasicsCard on the federal Government’s $672 million Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) in Northern Territory communities.

The scheme has been a serious cash cow for bureaucrats and contractors. The first two years of the program failed to deliver a single house.

A Tasmanian couple overseeing SIHIP as part of their role with NT Housing told The Australian in August 2009 that they had each been given new Toyotas and paid $71,000 per year “to do absolutely nothing”.

But Sheldon Stuart from the community of Amoonguna, about 20km south of Alice Springs, says that he was doing repairs and maintenance as part of SIHIP and only being paid his Newstart allowance through Centrelink. Fifty per cent of this was quarantined onto a BasicsCard, which can only be used to buy certain items at government-approved stores.

Sheldon told Crikey: “We started around June. We patched all the walls, patched the ceiling, painted the walls, painted the floor. We did everything in there.

“We’d start at eight and knock off at about 3.30. We did that for three-four months.

“When we first got paid, there was $300 on top of our Centrelink every fortnight. Then the top-up just started going down and down and then went out completely. It was just working for the dole. I was on the BasicsCard too. It was a complete rip off.”

An income managed Newstart allowance pays about $115 cash per week and $115 on the BasicsCard.

Sheldon’s repairs and maintenance work was being completed under the direction of New Futures Alliance (NFA), a consortium comprised of major corporate builders including Leighton Contractors and Broad Construction. NFA were supposed to pay the workers top-up for any hours they completed above the 16 per week required by CDEP.

For the weeks Sheldon was receiving $300 top-up from NFA, his pay works out to $8.15 cash an hour. For the weeks he received no top-up, the hourly cash rate was $3.50.

Workers at Amoonguna were engaged by SIHIP as participants in the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), which is administered by Community Enterprises Australia (CEA) in the Macdonnell region.

The federal government claims that 30% of workers on the SIHIP program are indigenous. It is unclear whether this includes CDEP participants. But workers at Amoonguna featured on the front page of a July SIHIP newsletter boasting about Aboriginal workforce participation.

Under reforms to CDEP introduced by the Labor Government, workers who first entered the program after July 2009, or have re-engaged after absence, are paid through Centrelink.

Many of these workers were previously paid through CDEPs run by local Aboriginal community councils, which have been abolished alongside the intervention. Activity requirements for Centrelink are now compelling them to do similar work for drastically reduced wages.

Scott McConnell is the general manager of Ingkerreke, an Aboriginal-run outstation resource organisation, which contracts for SIHIP through its commercial arm.

Scott explained how CDEP workers were used by SIHIP at Santa Teresa, another community in the Macdonnell region: “When we started working at Santa Teresa, we were asked to attend some workforce development meetings with New Future Alliance and Community Enterprises Australia (CEA).

“We immediately became very uncomfortable. They wanted us to pay people who were CDEP participants. To pay them top up. So someone would be working on a site with a CDEP participant on some CDEP rate and then, once they’d done their 16 hours through that little arrangement, then they’d work for Ingkerreke on a top up arrangement.

“We disengaged and said this is an absolute no go for us. But they went ahead and did it anyway. These guys ended up working on the sites for CDEP, then any extra hours were paid directly by New Future Alliance.

“Because it was a flexible arrangement and they weren’t getting paid properly, some people were treating it like it wasn’t a job. Others were really putting in and trying to learn. Some would work for three days, be promised top-up and then find out that they weren’t getting any — they were just getting the dole anyway.

“Working in SIHIP, Ingkerreke has to send our contracts and all of our information about how we remunerate staff to the government and get all the formal accreditation. Yet CEA have got these guys working on sites alongside us, doing the same work but getting paid next to nothing.

“If they’d done it properly, there could have been five or six people at Santa Teresa working for Ingkerreke for at least $25 an hour, up to 10 hours a day, 13 days in a fortnight. Our organisation is very concerned about this practice. There’s no way that you would have a white fella getting paid on a BasicsCard working on a $672 million construction program.”

Aboriginal communities have been dispossessed of millions of dollars worth of land and housing through the intervention and SIHIP. Using the intervention’s compulsory five-year lease over Aboriginal township land, all housing stock was transferred from local Aboriginal housing committees to the NT Department of Housing.

Crikey has been told that at Santa Teresa, rents of $180 per week are expected on houses for which residents paid $40 for before the SIHIP renovations. Despite the common occurrence of 15-20 people per house across all NT communities, only 16 of the 73 “prescribed communities” will receive any new housing under SIHIP. And only if they sign a 40-year lease with the Government.

On October 20, Gurindji workers went on strike in the communities of Kalkaringi and Dagaragu over the unemployment, exploitative working conditions and loss of services and land rights through the intervention and cuts to CDEP.

On October 29, a National Day of Action was held demanding “Stop the Intervention — Jobs with Justice for Aboriginal workers”, supported by a broad range of organisations including Unions NT, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, the Tangentyere Council and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission.

On Thursday, a high-level trade union delegation including ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence will begin a tour of the NT to investigate the impact of the intervention.

Peter Fray

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