Australia’s ‘Stolen Generations’ Not a Closed Chapter

An Aboriginal activist shouts slogans during a march in Brisbane, Australia, to stop the cycle of ‘stolen generations’ of Aboriginal children. Credit: Silvia Boarini/IPS

An Aboriginal activist shouts slogans during a march in Brisbane, Australia, to stop the cycle of ‘stolen generations’ of Aboriginal children. Credit: Silvia Boarini/IPS

By Silvia Boarini
BRISBANE, May 30 2015 (IPS)

Every year since 1998, Australia has marked ‘National Sorry Day’ on May 26, a day to remember the tens of thousands of indigenous children who, between the 1890s and 1970s, were forcibly removed from their communities by government authorities and placed into the care of white families or institutions to be assimilated into settler society.

‘National Sorry Day’ was set up following publication in 1997 of the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report, the result of the first national inquiry which collected testimonies of ‘stolen’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and criticised the racist policies that allowed their systematic separation from their families.

The report played a central role in highlighting the plight of the so-called ‘stolen generations’ but it took a further 11 years until the government formally apologised for this ‘blemished chapter’ in Australia’s history. Only in 2008 did then Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd take the unprecedented step.“If you listen to someone from the older age group of stolen generations and the younger ones, the essence of what they say is the same. They never met mother, they never met grandma. They feel they don’t belong anywhere. How they feel inside is the same” – Auntie Hazel, founding member of Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR)

“For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations (…) we say sorry,” he said on that occasion, before going on to envision a future in which “Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.”

Despite the apology, indigenous activists maintain that the ‘stolen generations’ is hardly an isolated chapter, let alone a closed one. “From the first few weeks of the invasion in the 1780s, they started removing our children and breaking down our families,” Sam Watson, a prominent Aboriginal leader and activist, told IPS. “And there are more children being removed now than ever before,” he added.

A recent report by the Government Productivity Commission, titled ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage’, corroborates Watson’s interpretation. Indigenous children in out-of-home-care numbered 5,059 in June 2004 and 14,991 in June 2014. Barely five percent of the population under 17 is indigenous and yet, the report shows, 35 percent of all children removed are Aboriginal and Strait Islanders.

Mary Moore is founder of the Legislative Ethics Commission and has followed many cases of indigenous and non-indigenous child removal. She calls Australia the ‘child-stealing capital of the world’.

Many jobs depend on this ingrained practice and laws are passed to legitimise it, she says. “Removal and adoption are counter-intuitive strategies,” she told IPS. “They ignore the damaging lifelong consequences on children and they are far more costly than supporting families to remain united.”

Authorities justify removals in the name of ‘child protection’ and point to a context of ‘neglect’ and possible ‘risk’ as justifying factors. But the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander minority, overly represented at the bottom of most socio-economic indices, wants to know whose ‘neglect’ and racist policies have contributed to the widespread poverty, soaring incarceration numbers or high mental illness rates affecting their communities.

Although federal government talks of “closing the gap in indigenous disadvantage”, critics say that, often enough, in order to end ongoing state of neglect of Aboriginal communities, the only gap to bridge is between government’s promises and its actions.

In February 2015, at a speech marking the anniversary of the 2008 national apology, former Prime Minister Rudd, while not ignoring the staggering 400 percent increase in removal of indigenous children since 1998, called the crisis a “new type of stolen generation” rather than an unresolved and continuing crisis.

For Auntie Hazel, a founding member of the grassroots pressure group Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR), there is no difference between what happened then and what happens now. “If you listen to someone from the older age group of stolen generations and the younger ones, the essence of what they say is the same,” she told IPS.

“They never met mother, they never met grandma. They feel they don’t belong anywhere. How they feel inside is the same,” she said.

GMAR was founded in New South Wales (NWS) in January 2014. NSW has the worst track record in child removals explains Auntie Hazel and GMAR was a way to say “enough is enough”. Just a year later, it had grown into a nationwide movement made up of self-organising charters throughout Australia’s affected communities.

The National Aboriginal Strategic Alliance to Bring the Children Home (NASA) now brings together GMAR and other like-minded groups. Protests, round-tables, marches and sit-ins have taken place across Australia and an international solidarity network is growing rapidly.

“We are all one and fighting for the same thing,” said Auntie Hazel. “It’s only when the little ones can nurture their spirit inside that they can become proud Aboriginal people.”

Ultimately, GMAR seeks to achieve self-determination in the care and protection of indigenous children and end the “power and control” that governments hold over the indigenous minority.

At the moment, many in the community complain, children are taken away with worrying ease, sometimes on the basis of unfounded and unchecked hearsay.

Anyone, Auntie Hazel explained, can call a hotline anonymously and say things about you. “Then maybe one day your child spends the lunch money on sweets so the teacher, a mandatory reporter, tells the Department of Community and Social Services (DOCS) that the child had no money for food. And so on until there is a case against you and you just don’t know.”

One of GMAR’s proposals to end this cycle is the establishment of an ‘Aboriginal expert committee’. Made up of health specialists, the committee will work with families deemed “at risk” by the DOCS before the children are removed.

Such a committee would have spared Albert Hartnett, one of GMAR’s male members, much anguish. In 2012 his 18-month-old daughter Stella was removed without warning. “DOCS officials escorted by police officers knocked on my door one Friday morning,” he recalls, still emotionally shaken.

“They said the child was at risk. They asked me ‘where is the dog?’ but I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. We had no dog.” Although DOCS did not find any of the “risks” mentioned in their documents, such as dog excrement on the floor, they still took the child.

Friday removals are a practice being fought by GMAR because it puts DOCS at an advantage by leaving families without support for a whole weekend. “They tell you ‘you are an unsuitable parent’ and it is easy to fall into a downward spiral,” Hartnett said.

With no faith in the system, Hartnett attended the consultations the following Monday and in the evening received a surprise phone call from DOCS asking to assess his home. “It happened backwards,” the father of five told IPS. “First they took the child and then they came to assess.” The child was restored to the family but everyone, said Hartnett, has remained scarred by the experience.

“After the [2008] apology,” Auntie Hazel told IPS, “our community felt disempowered. We were suffering in silence.”

The truth was out about removals and instead “government stigmatised us,” Hartnett told IPS, referring to a case in 2007 Australia’s Northern Territory when, citing unfounded allegations of child abuse, federal government seized control of a number of indigenous communities.

Olivia Nigro, a social justice campaigner and researcher for GMAR told IPS that in this context, what GMAR has achieved is mobilisation from within. “GMAR has galvanised families in affected communities. It has really generated the political confidence to talk about this issue and demand redress for the people.”

Edited by Phil Harris

Garment Sweatshops in Argentina an Open Secret

A clandestine textile sweatshop in the Flores neighbourhood of the Argentine capital that suffered two fires: one on Apr. 27 that killed two Bolivian boys, aged seven and 10, and the second on May 7, which gutted the building and was apparently intentionally set to eliminate evidence of illegal activities. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

A clandestine textile sweatshop in the Flores neighbourhood of the Argentine capital that suffered two fires: one on Apr. 27 that killed two Bolivian boys, aged seven and 10, and the second on May 7, which gutted the building and was apparently intentionally set to eliminate evidence of illegal activities. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
BUENOS AIRES, May 30 2015 (IPS)

The death of two Bolivian boys in a fire and the mistreatment and sexual abuse of a young Bolivian woman put the problem of slave-like labour conditions in clandestine sweatshops back in the headlines in Argentina.

The state, the textile and fashion industries, and consumers mutually blame each other for the problem.

The two brothers aged seven and 10 died on Apr. 27 in a fire in one of the numerous clandestine garment workshops in Flores, a Buenos Aires neighbourhood, where their parents, immigrants from Bolivia, were living and working.

A few days earlier, Rosa Payro, a 21-year-old from Bolivia, was rescued from another sweatshop on the outskirts of Buenos Aries after nearly three years of being raped, beaten, tortured and held captive by distant relatives she was working for.

These two cases reflect a complex situation, Juan Vásquez, a former sweatshop worker who now forms part of Simbiosis Cultural, a collective of Bolivian immigrants seeking to draw attention to the appalling conditions in the clandestine workshops, told IPS.

“When people talk about slave labour, they think of it as a ‘Bolivian’ thing and they don’t associate it with consumerism, with local working class people, with the connivance of the national and city governments,” said Vásquez. “We are merely the leftovers, the excluded, the exiled.”

According to the Alameda Foundation, there are some 3,000 sweatshops in and around Buenos Aires alone, with an average of 10 employees each. The majority of the roughly 30,000 workers are from Bolivia, South America’s poorest country. But there are also Peruvians, as well as workers from other Argentine provinces.

“They live in the same place where they are exploited, and they work over 16 hours a day,” said Lucas Schaerer, spokesman for the Alameda Foundation, which fights slave and child labour and the trafficking of persons for sexual exploitation. “They are completely under the control of their boss.”

He told IPS that “they’re forced to pay taxes, they eat in the same place they work, in inhumane conditions. Their meals, discounted from their wages, are skimpy, which is why they have a high incidence of tuberculosis. They live in concentration camp-style dormitories with bunkbeds and bathrooms shared by 30, 50, 60 people.”

In Argentina, a country of 41 million people, including 1.8 million foreign nationals, the law on immigration guarantees the right to work, education and healthcare for South American immigrants. But many of these modern-day slaves are undocumented. And according to estimates by non-governmental organisations, 90 percent of them work in agriculture or the textile industry.

“They often traffic them without documents or identification,” said Schaerer, referring to the sweatshop owners, who are sometimes relatives or acquaintances of the trafficking victims.

“Many don’t want to try to legalise their status because they think they’ll be deported,” Alfredo Ayala, the president of the Asociación Civil Federativa Boliviana, told IPS.

Schaerer said that the sweatshops are the last link in the garment industry chain, and that nearly 80 percent of the industry depends on them.

“It’s all part of a big scheme: people are trafficked, reduced to slavery conditions, and forced to work making clothes” for big and small brand names, street fairs, famous designers, fashion boutiques, counterfeit clothing markets, and even government departments, he said.

He cited a 2006 internal audit by the Defence Ministry, which found that the army procured supplies from clandestine workshops.

“Many different parties share responsibility for this criminal activity,” where national and municipal laws are violated, Schaerer said. “A large number of immigrants come into the country illegally in buses. They enter from Bolivia (over the northern border), and ride across nearly half of Argentina without running into any kind of controls,” he added.

He also said the racket is closely linked to drug trafficking, which uses the sweatshops to launder money.

Schaerer said the national government was responsible for failing to codify the Law on the Prevention and Punishment of Trafficking in Persons, and the Buenos Aires city government for failing to monitor and carry out inspections, and for protecting the clothing brands that have been denounced.

Ayala complained that members of the police “guarantee that the sweatshops will be safe from problems in exchange for bribes.”

One example was the workshop where the two boys died. Despite the police guard after the first fire, it was set ablaze on May 7, in an apparently intentional fire aimed at eliminating documents and evidence.

Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri blamed the sweatshop problem on the lack of jobs, “combined with illegal immigration,” and said the factories often do not let the city inspectors in.

In 10 years, the Alameda Foundation received some 5,000 complaints of slave and child labour, mistreatment and sexual abuse, as in the case of Payro.

But although 110 national and international brands – some of them famous – have been named in legal proceedings for allegedly buying from sweatshops, only one was found guilty.

“It’s a complex system…that is necessarily nourished by immigration” – in other words, a segment of the population without a social safety network or money, said Vásquez.

“When you come here you’re very vulnerable because you don’t know the place…they tell you ‘this is where you’ll work, and we’ll bring your meals,’ and you start to just accept the situation as normal. You don’t question anything because they’re giving you a solution after things were really hard back in your own country,” he said.

He was nine years old when he came to Argentina with his brother and his mother, who pawned their house to find a job. “The idea was to come here and not go back, because we didn’t have money. My last memory of Bolivia is being hungry. I remember her desperation to find some money,” he said.

After a complicated border crossing, they made it to the small factory where his father worked. For three months the family shared a single bunk.

These hardships were compounded by discrimination. At school Vásquez was teased and bullied for his accent and dark skin.

At the age of 16, he started to work in a sweatshop, and his parents opened their own.

“It’s all just seen as normal, and it doesn’t have to do with cultural characteristics,” he said. “When my mom opened up her workshop she didn’t think: now I’m going to exploit people and make money off of them. She had learned how the system worked. She saw working 16 hours, in those conditions, as something normal.

“It’s capitalism overlapping with the issue of immigration,” Vásquez said.

“My fellow Bolivians are often unfamiliar with the laws, and break them,” Ayala said. “They don’t know for example that what they’re doing is trafficking in persons. Sometimes they bring over a relative, thinking they’re doing them a favour, without knowing that they’re committing a crime.”

The Alameda Foundation proposes alternatives like textile cooperatives in workshops that have been confiscated or recovered by the workers.

They are also calling for an obligatory label to guarantee to consumers that what they’re buying was not made in a sweatshop, with slave labour. The governmental National Institute of Industrial Technology tried to adopt a voluntary label, but only one big clothing store accepted it.

Ayala is asking the government “to raise awareness about the laws so people don’t keep bringing people in” and to monitor the big clothing manufacturers, “because without them slave labour wouldn’t exist.”

For its part, the government encourages people to report sweatshops and cases of abuse to the special prosecutor’s office to fight human trafficking and exploitation.

“We say that instead of closing the workshops, we have to open them up, in order to find the solution together with the main actor: the textile worker,” said Vásquez.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes