Indentured labourers and Nauru in the 1940s

In Australian labour history, the words “Chinese labour” and “cheap” are run together frequently and repeated uncritically. They conjure an image of passive pliant dupes at best, or at worst people who were outright scabs. But the stereotype is a racist lie. The truth is that both before and during the White Australia period, Chinese workers organised and struck, sat down and walked off, rioted and won equal pay. They even called for revolution. In this series, Red Flag uncovers some shamefully neglected working class heroes.


During the Second World War, Australian forces were driven out of Nauru by the Japanese. This was quite a loss for Australian imperialism, because in addition to the tiny island’s strategic airstrip, its mines had provided vital phosphate for war munitions. Under the regime of the Australian-owned British Phosphate Commission, the mines had been worked by indentured labourers from China.

As the Australians fled, they took 557 of the Chinese labourers to the mainland to continue their indentured labour in the tungsten mines of the Northern Territory.

From the moment they left Nauru, the Chinese workers engaged in a protracted campaign of industrial action and resistance, including granting themselves a three-week unscheduled “stopover” in Port Augusta and winning a collective agreement. In the town, they went shopping and even put on concerts for the locals.

But when they reached their destination, the government immediately ditched the agreement and was determined to punish the workers for their impudence. The men were given unpolished rice and meals contaminated with sand. Their water was rationed and their shelter was open to the elements.

Australian authorities denied union officials entry to the site, in an attempt to prevent the labourers from reorganising. Their efforts were futile.

As the months went by, hardly an ounce of tungsten was produced, and it was later revealed that production on the site had fallen to just 17 percent of its prewar levels. The labourers staged an endless string of go-slows and strikes, and built themselves a strike headquarters unlike any you’ve ever seen.

Notwithstanding the hardship of the situation, it was a relative party town, complete with hammocks and huts. The authorities tried in vain to break the union through measures including locking the food stores in hopes of starving the miners back to work. But in response, the miners put their digging skills to use and built themselves a coolroom, dug into the side of a hill, and proceeded to fill it with the meat of animals they caught themselves.

After almost two years, the frustrated government stepped in and separated them like naughty school kids, sending them all over the country and even into the US army – at wages well above the standard service rate. Keen to cover up its difficulties with war production, the government had the site quietly demolished, though traces of strangely unidentified buildings still dot the area around Hatches Creek and Wauchope, south of Tennant Creek.

After the war, the victorious Australian imperial forces retook control of Nauru and continued to pillage every last skerrick of phosphate from the place.

But in 1948, 1500 indentured Chinese labourers staged a rebellion. Arming themselves with stones, axes and tools, all 1500 barricaded themselves in their quarters. On the barricades they hung handwritten signs warning that no white person would be allowed inside. They stoned company officials and cops who tried to break the barricade. 

Nobody ever seems to have bothered investigating or at least recording their aims or demands – other than acknowledging their refusal to return to China. Either way, the rebellious miners on Nauru were brutally crushed. Australian armed forces shot their way into the barracks and killed four of them. Just a few short years later there was no phosphate left anyway. What price the lives of those four anonymous Chinese rebels?

Read more
The MOVE bombing of 1985
Zak Borzovoy

“Attention, MOVE. This is America. You have to abide by the laws of the United States.” This was the ultimatum given through a Philadelphia police megaphone to a group of Black activists trapped in their home in the early morning of 13 May 1985. The house on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia was surrounded by hundreds of police. Thirteen MOVE members, including five children, were inside.

Rosa Luxemburg on imperialism and war
Luxemburg on imperialism and war
Rick Kuhn

From early in her political career, Rosa Luxemburg was concerned with the struggle against imperialism and war. Her analysis and the tactics she advocated weren’t all correct, but she was always on the side of the working class and its independent organisation, and of the oppressed. That was true in her approach to the “national question”, her responses to wars and her theory of imperialism.

The murder of Rosa Luxemburg
The murder of Rosa Luxemburg
Belle Gibson

“You know, I hope nevertheless to die at my post, in a street-battle or in a hard-labour prison”, wrote Rosa Luxemburg to a comrade in 1917. This was not rhetorical flourish or hyperbole: Luxemburg gave everything she had to the fight for socialism. Including, in the end, her life.

Luxemburg and the German revolution
Tess Lee Ack

The carnage of World War I was ended by revolution in Germany. It began in November 1918 with a mutiny of sailors in Kiel. The revolt spread like lightning among Germany’s war-weary and increasingly rebellious workers. All over the country, workers’ and soldiers’ councils were elected and held effective power. Within a matter of days, the monarchy collapsed.

Rosa Luxemburg’s 'Junius pamphlet'
Elliot Downes

In 1915, Rosa Luxemburg wrote The Crisis of Social Democracy while in jail for her anti-war activism. In it, she criticised the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) for betraying working-class internationalism with their support for the First World War. The pamphlet was smuggled out in April that year and published a year later. Distributed illegally under the pseudonym Junius, it’s commonly known as the Junius pamphlet.