‘They kill everything, these people,’ my boss says to me on my third day. She is talking about Indigenous people hunting and living off the land. Ironic, I think, considering that the main income of this place comes from the seven and a half thousand cattle that they sell to the meat industry.
The soundtrack for the drive – this time heading north of Alice Springs, primarily along rough, unsealed roads – was that same excited chatter my friend and I always have as we make our way to a new job out in the Australian ‘bush’. Wondering what the people will be like, will the work be difficult but fun, and the inevitable question, will the money be any good?
On top of this, I remember saying, ‘I hope we don’t have a racist boss again.’ Having spent most of my life in Melbourne, where racism can be more hidden or insidious – from my perspective at least – it had been confronting to witness it in action in some rural and regional contexts (and made me realise how much I had probably missed at home).
Earlier in the year, we’d worked fruit picking and in a winery in the Riverland in South Australia, so my German friend could complete the eighty-eight days of farm work required for her working holiday visa. ‘Never work for an Indian, never work for a Muslim, never work for a Turk,’ was one of the pieces of gratuitous advice we got whilst working there.
All we knew about this new job on the remote cattle station we were heading to was that there was a general store, a few living quarters (for staff and stockmen), and two Indigenous communities just ten kilometres away. My friend’s comment was naïve, possibly – ‘Surely they won’t be racist,’ she said cheerfully, ‘not if they’re all living together so closely.’
On our first day, a salesman had arrived to check that all the products he provided to the store were in order. He walked around with my boss, discussing how ice creams should be displayed if she wanted them to sell. We listened in. ‘The blacks can’t read, so they go for the colourful, cheap ice creams. Make sure you have them placed here,’ he said. Catching our expressions, he laughed. ‘You’ll catch on to the language around here, girls, don’t worry.’
It wasn’t just the language and the attitudes, though. It was how the whole system worked.
In the shop, another girl we worked with, who had been here for five days before us, informed us that the most complicated thing we were going to have to get used to was the ‘book up’ system.
I’d never heard of it before. It is a system used particularly in rural communities, where people can use informal credit to buy groceries at the store and then pay for them later. If done properly and responsibly, it can be an efficient system in the outback. It’s helpful for Indigenous people who often don’t have access to internet banking and phone services, or who receive Centrelink payments (generally paid fortnightly) and need to buy groceries or fuel. They can be allocated an amount of credit (for example, ‘$150’ worth of groceries) and leave their card behind for security.
If practiced badly though, the ‘book up’ system can be extremely unfair. A folder filled with BasicsCards – that restrict the use of welfare payments to the purchase of food and other essential items – and credit cards was placed just below the counter. That in itself was absurd and risky, giving easy access to a lot of people’s personal account information and money.
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) has a special publication dealing with the risks of ‘book up’ that warns that a ‘consumer should never tell their PIN to a store or trader.’
At this store, on each person’s card, there was a sticker with their PIN code attached. One of our duties was to ‘check the cards owing the store money.’ On the first occasion, oblivious to what this involved, I watched a colleague as she opened the folder of cards, flipped to ‘Tuesday’ and began testing each card in that day’s section on the EFTPOS machine.
I later learnt that this happened every morning; that they kept track of when each person who was in debt to the store would receive money into their account, and would then proceed to settle the debts, even when the person owing wasn’t present. And, despite the clear ASIC instruction that stores are legally obliged to provide ‘a receipt (or proof of the transaction) for goods or services totalling $75 or more’, this only occurred at our store if a customer came into the store to pay off their debt themselves. Otherwise, no receipt was given.
On one occasion, my boss was standing next to my friend as she started to pay off a debt but accidentally typed in the wrong amount – $20 more than what was owing. My friend pulled her up on the mistake, and the correct amount of money was taken instead. But it’s highly likely that these mistakes happen all the time, carelessly and unsupervised.
A handwritten diary was kept by the computer to record who owed money and who had been cleared and, as a result, could receive their card back. If the staff member forgot to write ‘cleared’ beside a person’s name, the money could be taken out again accidentally by another staffer. If the diary was ever lost, the records for who owed money, and how much money, would be lost too. My friend and I refused to be involved in the ‘book up’ system, wary of the negligence and disrespect paid to people’s financial security.
Part of what drives ‘book up’ for many Aboriginal people in rural and remote areas is the price of groceries and fuel. My boss complained about the unhealthy food people bought at the store, but it made sense. A cauliflower cost $8 and a single avocado was $5.50, but a six pack of two-minute noodles was $4.75. Why wouldn’t you buy the unhealthy food when you had a family to feed and it was so much cheaper than the other products in the store?
One study I read of a remote Northern Territory Aboriginal community found that food, in general, cost 50 per cent more than in Darwin, and that families there spent nearly 40 per cent of their income on food and non-alcoholic beverages, compared with 14 per cent for the average Australian household, and 30 per cent for low-income, non-remote Australian households.
So for a lack of alternatives, many people are caught in a difficult and repetitive way just to obtain essentials and manage basic chores. They travel large distances and use a lot of fuel to buy overpriced groceries, or overpriced fuel (two dollars a litre), use the services at the store (a phone and computer for contacting Centrelink, or trying to get jobs or booking medical appointments), and pay off ‘book up’ debts, in order to acquire more credit for overpriced groceries and overpriced fuel. Or just to use the phone in order to get some idea of how much money they have.
But at least they would be considered valuable customers, right?
On our fifth day there, the generator on the property stopped working, so when customers came in to ask for fuel we had to ask them to wait. My friend ran up to the main house to let the owners know.
‘Are they black?’ the boss asked. My friend nodded. ‘The blacks can wait. They have all the time in the world.’
On another occasion, my boss asked how many days old the sandwiches on offer in the shop were. Three, I told her. Cheerfully, she told me to go and give them to the Aboriginal people sitting outside. I was relieved and a bit pleased by her mild ‘generosity’. She later told me that she ‘liked to give them the scraps.’
On our twelfth day, my friend and I were asked to clean the rooms designated to the white stockmen who would be arriving soon. They were basic dongas (transportable rooms), just a single bed and cupboard space, but roomy enough with big windows. In addition to private rooms, they had a separate building with a kitchen and a comfortable lounge room.
A little way away was a small red shed that my boss pointed out on our first day: ‘That’s where the Aboriginal stockmen get to stay. They’re not allowed in the men’s quarters.’ The shed had two small windows, four beds bunched together, a fridge, a television and a fireplace with a camping cooker all jammed in. We were never asked to clean their quarters, not even to replace the old linen on the falling apart mattresses – or new mattresses for that matter.
On my fifteenth day, my boss confronted me. ‘So, I hear you think I’m racist.’ I told her she’d made several racist comments while we’d been there. Her response was, ‘Well, if you don’t like it, leave.’ Ironic.
On our last day working at the store, we were invited by one of the regular customers to have dinner with her community. We had become fast friends and she had promised to show us how to cook kangaroo tail on a campfire.
Her community was a thirty-minute drive from the store. It took us two hours to find our way. We yelped in triumph as we came around a bend and spotted what seemed to be a lit-up town in the middle of the bush. We were greeted by twenty barking dogs and somehow pulled up at the right house. Our friend saw us arrive, came over to greet us and laughed at us getting lost.
We were told that one of the men had found and killed a kangaroo and that they would be cooking it on the fire. ‘How did he kill it?’ I asked. ‘With a spear, of course,’ was the reply from one of the guys we had gotten to know through the store.
Later, around the fire, I congratulated this man on his find. ‘And with a spear too, huh? Badass.’ They laughed at me. ‘No, Ulli. He killed it with a gun.’
We had a great night – sitting around the fire, talking, laughing, letting the dogs lick the remnants of kangaroo off our fingers, and having our general ignorance mocked by our hosts, who were funny and kind. The contrast between their generosity, and the attitudes of the store’s owners, was stark. When it was time for us to leave, one of the men got into his car and lead us home, knowing that we’d struggle to find our way back.