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Thinking Labor Rights through the Coolie Question

  • Mae M. Ngai (a1) and Sophie Loy-Wilson (a2)


In 2014 the conservative Australian Institute of Public Affairs called for the abolition of the minimum wage—at the time AU$16.87, the highest in the industrial world and twice that of the United States. The Australian minimum, enacted in Victoria in 1896, was the first in the world. Other nations copied it, and the International Labor Organization inscribed it as an international convention in 1928. Responding to calls for its abolition, University of Melbourne historian Marilyn Lake reminded Australians that the minimum wage was a “symbol of Australian values.” Envisioned as a “living wage, sufficient to meet the variety of needs of a person living in a civilized community … [it] recognized workers as human beings and equal citizens,” she wrote.



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1. (accessed January 12, 2017). In 2016 the Australian minimum increased to AU$17.70 (US$13.25).

2. Marilyn Lake, “Minimum Wage is More than a Safety Net, it's a Symbol of Australian Values,’” Sydney Morning Herald, April 10, 2014.

3. Lake, Marilyn, “Challenging the ‘Slave-Driving Employers:’ Understanding Victoria's 1896 Minimum Wage through a World-History Approach”, Australian Historical Studies 45 (2014): 9495 .

4. Ibid.

6. Adam McKeown, “Global Migrations,” Journal of World History (2004). For purposes of the symposium and this special issue, we do not include regional short-term contract labor, such as Indian migrant labor in the South Asian subcontinent and southeast Asia (27 million) and Chinese migrant labor in southeast Asia and Manchuria (50 million).

7. Sell, Zach, “Asian Indentured Labor in the Age of African American Emancipation”, International Labor and Working-Class History 91 (2017): page #.

8. Bahadur, Gaiutra, Coolie Woman, The Odyssey of Indenture (Chicago, 2014), xixxxi .

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Thinking Labor Rights through the Coolie Question

  • Mae M. Ngai (a1) and Sophie Loy-Wilson (a2)


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