When Christmas Island Workers United Against Colonialism and Apartheid

The Australian external territory of Christmas Island is infamous for its immigrant detention center. But the island also has a history of solidarity: in the 1970s, its Chinese and Malaysian workers led a union struggle against colonialism and apartheid.

Cantilever arms load phosphate rock onto ships on Christmas Island, Australia. (David Stanley / Flickr)

Christmas Island rises from the Indian Ocean around 1,600 kilometers from Australia. Closer to Singapore than the mainland, it is home to a population of around two thousand people, the majority of whom have Chinese ancestry, with a sizable minority of people of Malay heritage. This tropical rocky speck is unlike most of Australia — on Christmas Island, Lunar New Year, Hari Raya Haji, and Hari Raya Puasa are public holidays.

Christmas Island is well known to Australians, but not for its natural beauty or unique red crab migrations. Rather, this far-flung external territory primarily features in Australia’s consciousness as a site of human misery. It plays host to an infamous immigration detention center, a cornerstone of a draconian border protection system that has driven Australian politics to the right for years.

However, few realize that Christmas Island has a more radical, internationalist history. It was the site of a militant trade-union struggle against a form of apartheid that segregated white and Asian workers until the 1980s. The victory of those who stood up to the Christmas Island Phosphate Company demonstrated the power of collective action to overcome racism and exploitation.

British Imperial Apartheid

Settlement of the uninhabited island, named Christmas Island in 1643, only began after British surveyors discovered phosphate deposits in 1886. Britain annexed the island in 1888 and gave the Christmas Island Phosphate Company a ninety-nine-year lease on the territory. Phosphate mining began in 1899, using indentured labor from Singapore, the Malay Archipelago, and China.

In 1919, Britain transferred the management of mining on Christmas Island — as well as that of Nauru and Banaba, now part of Kiribati — to the British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC). The BPC comprised government representatives from Australia, New Zealand, and Britain. In 1949, the British government sold its mining rights to Australia and New Zealand. And in 1958, the UK transferred sovereignty over Christmas Island from Singapore to Australia.

All the while, the BPC continued to manage the island using extraordinary powers. The BPC paid Asians a fifth of what white workers received and could summarily dismiss workers, who had no right to appeal. 

The authorities deported fired workers within twenty-four hours, stamping their passports with NTR — “Never to Return.” They forbade Asian workers from owning land on Christmas Island or settling permanently. The BPC owned everything, including the local shop.

The island’s housing, transport, swimming pools, and education system were also highly segregated. White families lived in houses built to Australian standards while Asian families lived in small flats without hot water or air conditioning. Single Asian men lived in dormitories the size of bathrooms, without mattresses. 

There were also two schools, one Asian and one European. The island’s European population were almost totally opposed to proposals to integrate the two schools. 

Unsurprisingly, given this setup, one resident described Christmas Island as

pretty much the last outpost of the British Raj. The BPC men were all there with their white shorts and long socks and they all played golf on Friday afternoons. The European people would put on shows at the Christmas Island Club, but by virtue of the fees, it was a European stronghold.

Striking Against the BPC

The catalyst for change came in 1974, when workers struck to oppose the dismissal of Teo Boon How, the chief interpreter in the administrative office. The BPC had fired him on March 26, ordering him to leave Christmas Island within twenty-four hours. The next day, more than 1,100 workers refused to report to work, instead marching in protest. 

The strike forced the acting administration to rescind Teo Boon How’s deportation order and later to reinstate him. This was not the first strike on Christmas Island. However, it signaled a shift. It was the first time the island’s Asian community exercised political power.

On March 21, 1975, fifteen Asian community leaders met secretly and formed the Union of Christmas Island Workers (UCIW). On Teo Boon How’s recommendation, they elected schoolteacher Michael Grimes as the UCIW’s first general secretary on a part-time basis, in part thanks to his experience organizing teachers’ unions. They also elected as president Lim Sai Meng, a worker with a Chinese background who had come to Christmas Island from Malaysia in 1973. Within a week of its formation, more than seven hundred workers had joined the new union.

Grimes had arrived in 1975, alongside some twenty other people from the Commonwealth Teaching Service. Their salaries outstripped those of local teachers, highlighting the extent to which the BPC underpaid Asian workers.

In 1978, Grimes resigned as UCIW secretary and was replaced by Gordon Bennett, an English migrant. Bennett’s more militant style of union organizing caught the attention of mainland Australian newspapers, highlighting the plight of Christmas Islanders. 

The Chinese community nicknamed Bennett “Tai Ko Seng” (Big Brother Who Delivers). Under his leadership, the UCIW immediately called for a $30-a-week raise and minimum wage parity with the mainland within a year. The workers also demanded Australian citizenship rights for Christmas Islanders and called for the Australian government to take full administrative control of the island.

In 1979, the workers met at a cinema in Poon Saan, Christmas Island’s second-largest town. Almost the entire workforce of the island voted to take strike action in support of the UCIW’s demands, bringing phosphate production to a halt. The workers self-levied to raise a war chest of $70,000 for their campaign.

The BPC fought back against the industrial action. They stood down three hundred workers in May, following a strike by ship loaders. According to their industrial agreement, the BPC didn’t have the power to sack these workers. James Taylor, the deputy president of Australia’s arbitration commission, came to the island to mediate the dispute. 

At the company’s request, Taylor inserted a stand-down clause into the ship loaders’ agreement, retrospectively legitimizing the BPC’s move. Unsurprisingly, this only fanned the flames of the strike. 

The workers reacted swiftly. A mass meeting of 1,500 workers voted to prevent Taylor from leaving Christmas Island. Taylor was only allowed to leave some days later, after Australian Council of Trade Unions president Bob Hawke flew to Christmas Island and intervened on his behalf.

Next, the UCIW took its campaign to the mainland, where they made use of a series of creative tactics. They took the home affairs minister to court for underpayment and established a protest tent camp outside Parliament House in July 1979. Later that year, they waged a twelve-day hunger strike, garnering media attention.

Against all odds, the union won the pay raise it had demanded immediately. And its protest actions resulted in a public inquiry into the BPC. The inquiry recommended that Christmas Island be brought under the same administrative jurisdiction and industrial legislation as mainland Australia. A former BHP executive, Wilfred Sweetland, ran the inquiry and was scathing of the BPC, describing it as “colonial” and “repugnant.”

By 1981, the UCIW had won all its industrial demands including wage parity. The publicly owned Phosphate Mining Company of Christmas Island took over the phosphate industry. This finally put an end to the BPC’s rule. Following his victory in the 1984 election, Bob Hawke’s Labor government brought Christmas Island fully under Australian administration.

Ongoing Injustices

Despite these victories, Christmas Islanders are still confronted by injustices. In 1987, the Australian government closed the phosphate mine. Although union workers purchased the mine and reopened it in 1990, other attempts at economic diversification have not borne fruit. 

The Australian government blocked proposals to boost tourism by revitalizing the island’s resort and casino, previously legislating to prohibit casino operations. This means that Serco, the company that runs the notorious Christmas Island Detention Centre, is the island’s largest employer.

The battle against the legacy of colonialism is also not over. Christmas Island has many of the characteristics of a non-self-governing territory, as described by UN Charter Article 73. Yet Australian governments still treat it like a distant possession. Islanders do not enjoy basic democratic rights. 

Australian citizens in Christmas Island can vote in federal elections, but they must do so as part of the Northern Territory, and have no say over the Western Australian state laws that apply to them. Just as Christmas Islanders did not get to vote over the transfer of sovereignty to Australia in 1958, the Australian government has not consulted with them or allowed them a say over the island’s governance since.

Following its historic victories in the early 1980s, the UCIW has maintained its key role in the life of the island. Gordon Thomson, a UCIW leader who also serves as the president of the Christmas Island Shire Council, summed it up well:

The collective power of unionism yet remains the most important and only real means of resisting those who would destroy us and the gains we have made as a union since 1975.

Indeed, the story of the UCIW’s victorious battle against the colonial apartheid regime in Christmas Island should be as well known in Australia as other historic struggles, like the Wave Hill walk-off or the green bans. Christmas Island’s history shows that militant, class-struggle trade unionism is a powerful weapon against colonialism and racism.