South Australia’s employment relief program for assisted immigrants: promises and reality, 1838-1843

Edwyna Harris, Sumner La Croix

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Great Britain established the colony of South Australia (SA) in 1834, requiring that revenues from colonial land sales be used to subsidize passage for emigrants to SA. Their immigration contract required the SA government to provide emigrants unable to find private sector work with employment on public works. We use new data on the compensation of relief workers and private sector workers to examine how the SA unemployment system functioned before and after a major economic crisis began in August 1840. We conclude that the unemployment system provided highly compensated relief employment to a small number of migrants prior to the crisis. As the number of migrants claiming relief employment soared between August 1840 and October 1841, the government drastically cut relief compensation. The cuts occurred in tandem with the release of newly surveyed rural lands, which together provided incentives and opportunities for workers to move to rural areas to seek employment. Finally, a comparison of the SA employment relief program with a temporary employment relief program in New South Wales (NSW) shows that the NSW program neither guaranteed relief employment nor provided jobs for all assisted migrants without work in NSW during the 1843–1845 period.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)586-607
Number of pages22
JournalLabor History
Issue number5-6
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • migrants
  • public works
  • Relief
  • South Australia
  • unemployed

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