Advocating for recognition of South Sea Islander labour in Australia’s prosperity

Published in Issue 1 - 2017

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Zac Wone

More than a century ago, an indentured labour trade of Pacific Islanders was brought to Australia to help establish our sugarcane, maritime and pastoral industries. These days Southern Cross University law alumnus Zac Wone advocates for their descendants, the Australian South Sea Islander community.

“Australian South Sea Islander (ASSI) people remain marginalised and unrecognised for the contribution they made to Australia’s economy. Disadvantage and discrimination is a legacy,” said Zac who is the Deputy Vice President and Youth Representative of the Australian South Sea Islanders – Port Jackson (ASSIPJ) based in Sydney.

Zac described the indentured labour trade, also known as ‘‘blackbirding’, as akin to slavery. It started in NSW in 1847 (through landholder and grazier Benjamin Boyd), with an influx to Queensland between 1863 and 1908.

From more than 80 islands in the Western Pacific, including the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) in Melanesia, the Loyalty Islands, Samoa, Kiribati, Rotuma (Fiji), Tuvalu in Polynesia and Micronesia, tens of thousands of islanders came to Australia.

“I’ve managed to find my family in the Solomon Islands. In the 1880s my great-great-grandfather was kidnapped and brought to Mackay,” he said.

In September last year, Zac won the Community Events – Youth category at the 2016 Pacific Communities Awards for his participatory work with ASSIPJ’s community capacity-building workshops. He acted as lead youth coordinator of the BLACK (Bold Leadership Awareness Culture Knowledge) workshops, a youth leadership program designed to raise awareness of ASSI history through education and cultural participation in Western Sydney and the Tweed in northern NSW.

“Justice is a common theme in all the work I do: fighting for a fairer society, fairness for marginalised groups, giving people the knowledge to understand the law. I’ve always had an interest in law and justice,” he said.

Zac, who was awarded a Bachelor of Legal and Justice Studies from Southern Cross University, grew up in Nimbin and went to Richmond River High School in Lismore.

“SCU was close to home so I could stay connected to my family. Being a small university, you get attention and support which is really helpful when you’re fresh out of high school,” he said.

“I really appreciated IASS (Indigenous Australian Student Services) as a place to socialise and hang out. I have great memories of representing SCU in the Black Swans team at the Indigenous University Games and playing touch football, netball and basketball.”

For the last year of his degree, Zac studied at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, a Southern Cross University partner organisation.

“Living and studying in Japan for a year is an opportunity I’m definitely grateful for,” he said. “It’s a humbling experience, having to adapt to another culture and relying on local people to help you make sense of an unfamiliar environment. It built my confidence.”

After graduation, Zac volunteered on a community-based project in Vanuatu with the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program. He completed AusAID’s (Australian Agency for International Development) two-year graduate program, which included a posting to Papua New Guinea with the law and justice program. He was also chair of the Indigenous Employees Network at AusAID.

Most recently Zac was program officer with Caritas Australia’s First Australians program running projects in Indigenous communities.

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