- by Graham Holton and David Matters
- The Guardian
- Issue #2013
On Thursday the 23rd June, we arrived in Childers, the day commemorating the Childers Backpacker Tragedy. Sixteen young people were burnt to death at the Palace Hotel because the owner had flaunted housing safety regulations. It is now an art gallery that explains the preventable disaster. The site has become a symbol of how poorly itinerant workers are treated in Queensland.
One man told us his Italian uncle had set up a local newspaper in Bundaberg to help the Italian farm workers in the 1950s. Unfortunately, someone threw dynamite into the print store, destroying the presses and killing the owner. The farming areas north of Brisbane used to have strong Communist supporters in the mid-20th century.
We dedicated the morning to the township, asking locals what the country town’s main problems were. High on the list was the treatment of South Sea Islanders, who have been exploited for generations. They are the cane cutters and fruit pickers who are poorly paid, have atrocious working conditions, and have housing problems. Rents are high, and housing caravan parks and hotel accommodation are limited. Many live in cars with their family. It is not just those on 457 Visas who have these problems, as it affects many families in this town. This exploitation of workers has been carried out by both the LNP and Labor governments. In nearby Maryborough, the show grounds were converted into a tent city to accommodate the homeless.
The cashless card is another problem, as it forces recipients to shop at big chain stores, not local ones. It further limits what items can be purchased, making the card owner child-like and needing parental care. The reintroduction of Robodebt by the new government is another worry.
THE TOUR’S BEGINNING
The tour started on Tuesday the 21st June, aiming to meet new members, talk to unions, and discover what problems currently exist in rural Queensland. We set up a discussion with two great people, Che and Lenin (yes, those are their real names!). A great afternoon, with both very keen on getting the Guardian – The Workers’ Weekly distributed to work colleagues and stores in Nambour and Caloundra. These towns are a two-hour drive north of Brisbane. Nambour used to be famous for its sugar cane, but the farms are now unproductive owing to falling sugar prices and overseas competition. All those coastal towns used to have South Sea Islander workers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The whole area has a housing and accommodation shortage as Queensland governments have failed to invest in low-income housing since the 1980s.
Wednesday, we met Kyle and Louise. Louise’s father was an old communist, so is very welcome to the Party. Kyle is a sub-contractor in the building industry whose bosses are continually not paying him for work or underpaying him. He took a pile of Guardians to distribute at his work site. Another problem is the local Neo-Nazis attacking workers and shouting racist abuse.
Thursday afternoon, we dropped into the Queensland Council of Unions in Bundaberg and left Guardians with the Secretary of the Queensland Teachers Union. We also spoke with a trade unionist named Scott on the local issues. Again it is housing, low pay, casualisation, and unsafe working conditions.
On Friday the 24th June, we visited another comrade in Biloela, and made contact with the Aboriginal Housing Committee. We also handed out pamphlets outside the offices of federal Member for Hinkler, who is a member of the National Party. This was a great beginning to our trip!