The Unemployed
Surviving on the ‘Susso’
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Australia Between The Wars

The story of the Great Depression in Australia is usually dominated by the image of the family breadwinner in his endless search for work. It was a society that saw a man's major role as that of breadwinner. The unemployed were issued with coupons or ration tickets that they could exchange for groceries, milk and bread. The state governments called it a `sustenance payment' but to Australians of the time it was known as `being on the susso'.

Nothing was provided for rent, heating, lighting or clothing and cash payments were given to the unemployed only in Western Australia. During the Depression, the unemployed were still regarded by governments as being responsible for their own misfortune. Governments claimed that giving money to the unemployed would open them up to the temptations of alcohol, tobacco and gambling. They were constantly made to suffer the indignity of queuing for handouts, being herded into camps, and having their privacy invaded and morality questioned.

The Commonwealth Government took no responsibility for providing unemployment relief. Applicants for the state governments' casual relief work schemes had to prove they were unemployed and destitute to become eligible. During the first few weeks of unemployment, families would often pawn possessions of value to raise rent money and purchase basic goods. Pawnbrokers charged huge fees for outstanding loans, with interest rates commonly set at 150 per cent. It was only a short time before families went hungry.

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Work for the Dole

For married men, pick and shovel construction work was sometimes available. The cash payment they received for this was often below the basic wage. A wide range of public works was undertaken. Wheat silos and water towers, railways and roads, sewerage and water supply systems were built. The trade unions were fearful of the work-for-the-dole schemes because of the threat to working conditions and minimum wages. Sustenance workers were given rates of pay that were lower than the award wage.

Refusal to work on a relief project made a man immediately ineligible for the susso. Men could be sent to the bush, far from families and with inadequate living conditions. In the early years of the Depression, the best a man could hope for was one or two days a week relief work. By 1935 - 36, relief expenditure provided employment for only one-fifth of the 300 000 unemployed who still sought work.

Going Bush

One of the major reasons for the severity of the Depression in Australia was the falling price of primary produce. As the value of wheat and wool plummeted in 1929, Australian farmers faced disaster. In the early months of the Depression many farmers were declared bankrupt, there were evictions from farms and goods were put up for auction. In Western Australia the newly formed Wheat Growers Union fought back by organising hundreds of farmers to attend auctions and buy up property at very low prices. Goods and farms were then handed back to the owner.
Swagmen or 'swaggies'

Many World War I soldier settlers were forced off their farms with nothing to show for a decade of hard work. Thousands of men `jumped the rattler' as they took off in their search for seasonal work by jumping on board moving freight trains. Other men became `swaggies'. They would line their shoes with cardboard as they walked the bush roads of Australia seeking work for their `keep'. In the census taken in 1933 it was estimated that there were 400 000 Australians living in makeshift dwellings on the fringes of towns or in public parks, and another 30 000 who were homeless and on the road in search of work. Most large farming towns had camps that were set up with tin sheds, showers and toilets. It was from here that migratory workers could wait for the offer of some farm employment. If they did not accept the terms of employment, the unemployed could be jailed for vagrancy.

Mothers, Wives and Workers

As with men, the experience of the Depression was a varied one for women. During the 1920s many women had entered the workforce, and their sudden unemployment had an equally shattering effect on the lives of them and their families.
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For many families during the Depression, survival depended entirely on women having the dual responsibilities of breadwinner and home-maker. Employment for married women was restricted and exploitation of cheaper female labour in the name of competition and cost-cutting was common. Trade unionists claimed that women's cheap labour took men's jobs. In 1919, the Australian arbitration system had set the basic female rate of pay at 54 per cent of the male rate. This meant that women's wages were not adequate to support a family.

In most cases, men and women did not do the same work. Women stood on the production lines of jam and pickle factories. Employment in factories was noisy, dirty and dangerous but always in demand. Women also worked in traditional women's roles. In many homes, daughters, mothers and sisters came to provide the major source of income. Some were employed as `sweated labour' sewing clothing, or lived in the homes of the wealthy as domestic servants. Many women also took in washing and ironing to bring in a meagre but much needed income.

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'Happy Valley' in La Perouse, Sydney, was where many evicted families lived in makeshift housing

The loss of a job often meant the loss of a home. In 1932, the Sydney Mail reported that 5000 applications for evictions had been made in the previous 12 months. There was little help for the homeless beyond some charity funds. Evicted families with children found shelter in rough sheds constructed from corrugated iron, flattened kerosene tins and hessian bags. In Sydney, these families established settlements in areas such as La Perouse, Botany and Brighton-le-Sands. The best known of the `susso camps' was the La Perouse `Happy Valley' community. More than 350 people lived here at any one time. Residents walked almost 1.5 kilometres to collect their water from the New South Wales Golf Club taps. Substandard living conditions and inadequate nutrition in these camps left residents prone to lice, dysentery, whooping cough and scurvy.

Humanitarian work, such as that of Reverend R. B. S. Hammond, was unfortunately rare. He established hostels for the destitute near Liverpool in Sydney, and a very successful self-help housing venture in 1932. To gain entry to the Hammondville cottages a family had to be unemployed with at least three children. Payments on their houses were deferred until after they gained employment. Nine cottages were made available when the scheme began, while more than 800 applications were received.

In New South Wales, unemployed people formed groups to fight against eviction orders. During 1931, eviction protests became violent. A major riot occurred when the McNamara family was due to be evicted from a home they had occupied in Redfern for 12 years. In a dramatic scene, documented in Sydney's daily newspapers, police charged through barricades and a picket line and then stood guard as the bailiff dragged furniture out of the house and into the street. In evictions which followed in Newtown and Bankstown, police were met with sandbag barricades, barbed wire, axes, iron pipes and garden forks.

Inequality of Sacrifice

Politicians talked of the need to share the burden of a struggling economy, but the reality was that the working class took the worst of the record unemployment levels. The Depression widened the gulf between political and class divisions in Australia.

Many among the very rich were hardly affected by the Depression at all, and some of them profited from it. In fact, if you were able to keep your job throughout the Depression, you likely experienced an increase in your standard of living. During the Depression wages fell, but commodity prices tended to fall even more. This meant that a person’s ‘real wages’, that is the power these wages had to buy things, actually went up. Thus, while the unemployed suffered a miserable existence through no fault of their own, those in employment probably never had things so good.

A letter from the editor from someone unsympathetic to the plight of the unemployed. Pictured are men 'sleeping rough' in the cliff overhang in the Domain in Sydney

For the wealthy leisure activities were unaffected by the Depression. Private parties, the racetrack, ocean voyages and fashion parades continued to be well attended. Some of the more fortunate were sympathetic and organised charity events to raise money and food for those less fortunate. Some such 'Depression Balls' organised in the name of charity, however, were merely social events where people attended to be 'seen' the social scene and to appear to be charitable to the less fortunate.

Many wealthy Australians justified their own good fortune with the belief that extreme poverty was not due to a failed economy but to laziness and a lack of good character.