1884 Pacific Islands Labourers Amendment Act

The introduction of Melanesian labour into Queensland and New South Wales from 1863 remained a highly-divisive issue until the federation of the Australian colonies in 1901. On one hand, there were claims that the recruiting system and subsequent treatment of Melanesian workers shared close affinities with slavery; on the other, a large number of colonists believed that black labour was incompatible with the ideals of a white society. Legislation to control the labour trade was first enacted in 1868, but it was the Pacific Island Labourers Act Amendment Act of 1884 which perhaps had the most significance. The legislation divided Melanesian labourers into three distinct groups which graded their legal status. Although an Act in 1877 restricted Melanesians on their first three-year contract to employment in tropical agriculture, the 1884 legislation narrowed this down to the sugar industry only, and confined employment to no more than ‘30 miles’ from the coast. This measure effectively deprived pastoralists of a cheap labour source. First-contract labourers were debarred from both domestic service and any skilled work in the refineries. Labourers who had completed their three-year term could either return to their home islands or re-engage on short-term contracts, while those who possessed an ‘exemption ticket’ proving they had resided continuously in the colony prior to 1 September 1879, gained a relative measure of freedom and were permitted to work in a wider range of occupations. The 1884 Act was the basis for Commonwealth legislation introduced in 1901 to ‘repatriate’ the majority of Melanesian workers to their home islands between March 1904 and December 1906.


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