Tuesday, July 8, 2014

When Chinese shearers had to sleep separately ...

Image: William Jukes Steward, 1891. From Wikipedia.

A little known fact – in 1898, the New Zealand parliament passed the Shearers Accommodation Act, which contained apartheid-like clauses demanding separate accommodation for Chinese shearers apart from everyone else in the shearing sheds of the land.

The original Bill, without the paragraph, was brought to Parliament by William Jukes Steward (1841-1912), representing Waitaki, in 1896. It was intended to provide a standard of accommodation for workers, but ended up having bits attached to it from the race-related concerns at the time, during the colony’s Liberal government period. At the Bill’s second reading:

“Mr T. MACKENZIE … strongly objected to Chinamen being employed as shearers, and hoped the bill would contain a clause providing for separate sleeping accommodation for shearers apart from that provided for Chinamen.” (Otago Witness, 16 July 1896)

The Workers Union in Waimate approved the Bill, “especially with clauses 8 and 9, which deal with separate accommodation, for members of the Chinese race who may be employed on the stations…” (Oamaru Mail 29 July 1896), and it passed the Lower House. The Legislative Council initially threw the Bill out, but it passed its second reading with them in October 1897.

The Act was consolidated in 1908 as the Shearers' and Agricultural Labourers' Accommodation Act, which was amended in 1919 by the Shearers' Accommodation Act 1919 which repealed some sections (5 to 9) of the 1908 Act, but not Section 11: “Where agricultural labourers are of any Asiatic race, the employer shall provide for such Asiatic labourers separate and distinct sleeping-accommodation from that provided for other agricultural labourers …” This was finally repealed, along with the rest of the 1908 Act, under the Agricultural Workers Act 1936.

So, after 38 years, separate accommodation for Chinese workers in the shearing industry was abolished.


  1. I've never heard of Chinese shearers in Australia but you had them in NZ?. Surely by 1936 it was a very moot point about Chinese shearers' accommodation. Interesting matter, for sure.

  2. Chinese Shearers.

    The Chinaman at home may be going to the wall, but the Chinaman abroad is decidedly coming to the front, as witness the case of the Chinese shearers at Moree, reported in our issue of yesterday. These perfectly up-to-date Celestials, on three Europeans being introduced, among them, at once downed tools, and declined to take them up again .until the newcomers were discharged. In the way of racial proscription, this is commending the poisoned chalice to our own lips with a vengeance. Or perhaps, on the other hand, it is simplty a Chinese illustration of the Napoleonic maxim of of "The tools to those who can use them". The Chinamen are described as old hands at the business, which they wished to keep to themselves, a piece of information which might possibly imply that the Europeans were novices. Anyhow, the strike in question is not the least curious of the signs of the times. (Sydney Evening News, 8 December 1894)

  3. I wonder to what extent that was more protectionism than simple racism by the Worker's Union - impose a costly prerequisite on the hiring of cheaper (and hard to unionise) labour?