International Review of Social History



Research Note

When Wages Were Clothes: Dressing Down Aboriginal Workers in Australia's Northern Territory


Julia Martínez 

Abstract

Prior to the introduction of equal wages for Aboriginal Australians in 1968, it was not unusual for Aboriginal workers in the Northern Territory to be paid in kind: in basic food, clothing, and tobacco. Some workers received a few shillings a week, but even this wage could be withheld completely or placed in a trust fund. In keeping with a supposedly humanitarian protectionist ethos, clothing was encouraged as a substitute for cash wages. But in practice employers rarely equated clothing with wages. Within the exploitative colonial context of Northern Territory few employers believed that any form of payment was owed to Aboriginal workers. This paper explores the perspectives of pastoralists, employers of domestic servants, and the army, considering how clothing primarily catered for the employers' needs. Aboriginal workers and indeed most government officials had the expectation that Aboriginal people would be given clothes as a form of remuneration but in practice this was rarely the case.