Kanakas: then and now

Between 1863-1908 approximately 60,000 Melanesians were brought to Australia as labourers in the pastoral and sugar cane industries. Many of these labourers were brought to Australia by way of ‘blackbirding,’ a term given to obtaining foreign labour by deception or kidnapping. By force or by choice, these labourers were known as Kanakas, and their purpose was to provide labour for little pay or as slaves.

We are not as far removed from these practices today as we would hope. A recent report published by the Grattan Institute estimates that 1 in 6 migrants are paid below the national minimum wage. The report further concluded that up to 9% of all workers in the Australian economy are paid below the minimum rate.

Wage exploitation does not occur at only the bottom of the labour market. In recent years numerous giants of the Australian economy have been uncovered systematically underpaying their employees, including Woolworths, Coles, and most recently BHP Billiton. These companies employ people at all wage levels, and their practices can influence behaviour throughout the value chain.


The sheer scale of Australia’s migration program causes downward pressure on the wages and conditions of Australians. The widespread economic exploitation of migrants reenforces that pressure by normalising practices that circumvent our hard-won rights and lower the expectations of job seekers. Young workers are particularly vulnerable, the Grattan Institute finding those in the 20-29 age cohort are six times more likely than those aged 30-39 to be subject to wage theft.

Your faithful correspondent, having made the foolish decision to attend an Australian university, encountered this firsthand. I worked at a café on campus where I was paid in cash at an hourly rate which was just below the minimum wage. I justified taking the position by reasoning that my cashflow situation would be improved by not paying tax on my earnings, which was true. But then I earned less than the tax-free threshold anyway.

By being employed off the books I had no workers’ rights and did not receive any contributions to my superannuation. Had it not been for the relentless competition for positions in even the most rudimentary jobs – caused by an oversupply of unskilled labour, I would never have even considered compromising on the conditions our forebears earned for us. To me, this kind of worker exploitation was so normalised it did not ring any alarm bells.


In the contemporary discourse, the Kanakas are held up to exemplify the exploitive and racist nature of Australians. Subsequent exclusion of exploited foreign labour of course ads further credence to this narrative. The Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 brought an end to use of Kanaka labour as an accompaniment to the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, passed a mere six days later.

What is lost in this typically anti-Australian frame of reference is the historic and ongoing tension between Australian workers and those who place their profit margins above the dignity of workers, both foreign and domestic. These acts of Parliament, fundamental to the establishment of our country, protected and enhanced the conditions of the Australian working man for decades until their relaxation and abolishment. They also pre-emptively prevented these injustices been meted out on unsuspecting foreigners.

Our government and their partners in industry understand the numbers game. They also understand that their policies undermine our collective bargaining power. The presence of large numbers of un-unionised workers, willing to do more for less, marginalises those who know and expect what we are entitled to. Cultural and linguistic diversity also inhibits trust and social solidarity, undermining the ability of workers to act collectively for the good of our workers and our country. 

The immigration program of the present regime is motivated by both greed and hatred. The ANA’s principled opposition to it is driven by a love for our countrymen and a generosity of spirit toward them that our opponents could never comprehend.

Rowan Oar

ANA Canberra

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