A man working on the beach with a mobile phone and laptop and a surfboard on the sand next to him
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Australians at Work

Australians at Work: Working Life in Australia

20th Century Jobs in Australia

Selected from the Film Australia Collection, the clips in this collection show everyday Australians at work in a variety of contexts.

From dusty outback cattle stations to suburban factories and isolated islands, Australians have been captured on film going about their work for more than a century. 

Included here are nurses, canecutters, lighthouse keepers, scientists, artists and more.

These clips are an important historical record of Australia's changing cultural, economic and industrial landscapes from 1910 to the present day. 

Main image: iStock.com/MarkPiovesan

Testing Rockets At Woomera Rocket Range
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NFSA ID
19349
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Rocket-making and launching tests the limits of science and technology at Woomera in South Australia, the longest rocket range in the western world.

This is an excerpt from the film Rocket Range Australia, produced in 1957 by the Commonwealth Film Unit in association with the Department of Supply.

When Rocket Range Australia was made in the late 1950s, the Australian Government’s Weapons Research Establishment in South Australia used what was then cutting-edge technology for rocket research and testing.

The film provides a fascinating insight into the work carried out at the sprawling Salisbury complex of offices, laboratories and workshops and at Woomera, home to both the world’s longest rocket range and a purpose-built township in the middle of the desert.

Wildlife Ranger
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NFSA ID
32814
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Australia’s Arnhem Land is patrolled by the wildlife ranger. In a remote and vast area of pristine natural beauty, the work ranges from tracking wildlife to rescuing baby turtles.

This clip is an excerpt from the film Wildlife Ranger (1979).

Set in the beautiful but isolated Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, Wildlife Ranger traces the duties and lifestyle of a national park ranger, including protection of and research into the diverse range of flora and fauna in the area.

The program follows two rangers plying the boat along the waterways in the wet season to check out a remote rookery. This gives us a close look at a unique environment, both at ground level and through breathtaking aerial photography.

We see the northern monsoonal forests, grasslands and wildlife in all their beauty, colour and diversity. The program also touches on the problems of remoteness from major towns, illustrated with the arrival of the fortnightly mail plane from Darwin.

An Australian-Greek Wife
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16050
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This clip is an excerpt from the film George and Toula, an episode of Our Multicultural Society Series 1, produced in 1978.

Toula, an Australian-born Greek wife, is a workers’ compensation officer. Breaking free from traditional Greek women’s roles, she desires a career and creative freedom.

Born in Australia, Toula is the daughter of a Greek-born father and an Australian-born mother from a Greek background but, by her own admission, she doesn’t feel comfortable in a wholly Greek environment.

As a teenager she wanted to date but was pressured to marry instead. She’s been married ten years, has no children, lives in an apartment rather than a house, and works as a workers compensation officer – lifestyle choices that she feels attract the Greek community’s disapproval.

Her husband George, on the other hand, is Greek born – a welder who enjoys the races. The two don’t have much in common, according to Toula, who feels much greater ambivalence than her husband about the traditions in which she was raised.

Our Multicultural Society Series 1, produced by Film Australia, explores Australia’s cultural diversity. The 11 documentaries in this first series explore issues around identity, community, communication and lifestyle.

They consider specific problems or challenges faced by particular individuals or groups, and look at our similarities and differences. The people featured in the programs range from new arrivals and second generation Australians to Indigenous Australians.

The full title is available to purchase via sales@nfsa.gov.au.

Surf Beach: Sydney Lifesavers
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25953
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An early summer morning on an almost empty Bondi Beach in Sydney. Local council workers remove rubbish and volunteer lifesavers check their gear, allocate safe surfing areas and practise their lifesaving skills.

Beginning and ending at Bondi, this film captures the essence of Australian beach life – the bodysurfers, boardriders, sunbakers, families, tourists and, of course, those iconic Aussie lifesavers.

From beach inspectors watching for danger to the ice cream vendors helping people cool down, Australia’s major beaches in summer have the hustle and bustle of a small town.

Surf Beach looks at the proud tradition of surf lifesavers, who give up their weekends voluntarily to patrol our beaches, keeping ordinary folks safe from disaster. Witness the thrilling rescue of a young woman who has got herself into trouble, and the military precision of the surf lifesavers as they bring her back to shore.

The highlight of the season is the Surf Life Saving Championships – a marvel of pageantry as surf lifesaving clubs from across Sydney march proudly along the beach, led by the University of New South Wales Regiment brass band.

Beautifully shot and set to a swinging soundtrack, Surf Beach pays tribute to an Australian icon: the beach.

Surf Beach is a National Film Board Production produced by the Commonwealth Film Unit.

Lighthouse Keepers And Their Families
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13976
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Three lighthouse keepers and their families are the only residents on remote and windswept Maatsuyker Island, off the south-west coast of Tasmania.

There are few lonelier jobs than that of a lighthouse keeper. Around Australia’s long coastline are the lighthouses that provide navigational aids to ships at sea.

Many of these are sited in lonely spots, but the people who tend them never fail to keep the lights ablaze. 

This clip is an excerpt from The Lighthouse Keeper, a National Film Board Production, produced by the Department of Information in 1949.

Is Squeezing Nursing Healthy?
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256209
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Nurses are frantic as they rush from patient to patient, working under increased patient-to-nurse ratios.

Despite this increased pressure, they try not to compromise the quality of their nursing care.

This is an excerpt from Land of the Long Weekend, a Film Australia National Interest Program produced in 1994.

Land of the Long Weekend examines the concept of leisure and Australia as the first country in the world to institute a 40-hour working week and a fair and reasonable wage. Conditions like these helped win Australia its reputation as the mythical land of the long weekend.

Yet today, for those with work, overtime has increased and penalty rates are disappearing. The nation’s population is increasingly divided between the over-worked and the under-employed.

Now that Australia is more the land of the level playing field than the land of the long weekend, have we abandoned the idea of the 'fair go'?

The full title is available to purchase via sales@nfsa.gov.au.

Sydney’s Harbour Bridge
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NFSA ID
14167
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Officially opened on 19 March 1932, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was a massive engineering undertaking that transformed the city.

For six years the two half-arches gradually drew closer together. A dream was realised when the heaviest and biggest bridge arch in the world was finally completed.

This short film documents the construction of one of the world's great landmarks in its various stages, and provides a fascinating glimpse of life around Sydney Harbour and Circular Quay in the 1920s and '30s.

Sydney's Harbour Bridge was made by the Cinema Branch and produced by the Department of Commerce.

The Yugal Cattle Company
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NFSA ID
32810
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The Yugal Cattle Company was given a grant of $336,000 to go into business running a cattle station.

After a protracted land rights battle, the Yugal Cattle Company established the first Indigenous-owned cattle station on a reserve in the Northern Territory.

This short film looks at the history of the station and the company, which represents the local Aboriginal community, as well as its aspirations and the challenges it faces.

The Yugal Cattle Company was produced by the Commonwealth Film Unit for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
Working To Play In A Rock Band
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NFSA ID
14809
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In order to earn a living, the members of this rock'n'roll band must work in mundane jobs during the day. At night they pursue their dreams of musical success.

This clip is an excerpt from Bundy Into Dreamland, an episode of the Film Australia series Working (1979).

Working is a window into 1970s Australia and reflects different attitudes to work, including working for money, love or passion, and working for an employer or being self- employed.

The Postwar Wool Boom
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NFSA ID
13234
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With 125 million sheep spread across the country, and 90 thousand tons of lamb and 3 million tons of wool exported annually, Australia truly rode to prosperity on the sheep’s back.

This is an excerpt from the film Men and Mobs, produced by the Department of Information for the Commonwealth Department of Commerce and Agriculture in 1947.

Men and Mobs relates the growth of Australia’s sheep flocks, starting with the few Spanish Merinos that John Macarthur mated to the progeny of Indian sheep brought to Australia by Captain Arthur Phillip on the First Fleet in 1788.

Using song and anecdote, the film builds up the story of the men and mobs of sheep that provide fleece for our textile mills and materials for clothing a nation.

Closing Day At BHP's Newcastle Steelworks
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451394
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Two-thousand steelworkers collect their final paycheques and walk out of Newcastle’s BHP steelworks for the last time. Men break down and cry. Many have laboured here all their working lives.

This clip is taken from the film Steel City (2000)a Film Australia National Interest Program produced with the assistance of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

In Steel City, the employees of the BHP steelworks in Newcastle are bracing themselves for Australia's largest industrial shutdown. With one month to go, they’re struggling to come to terms with an uncertain future.

Peter is angry – he's lost his marriage as well as his job. Jack is on an emotional rollercoaster as he faces the challenge of setting up his own business. And workshop manager Aubrey, once a militant unionist, is worried about what will happen to the men he calls 'his boys'.

Meanwhile, the company's spin doctor is selling the closure as a 'feel-good' story. This is the end of an era. Life in Steel City will never be the same.

The full title is available to purchase via sales@nfsa.gov.au.

Cane Cutters
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NFSA ID
40346
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This short film takes a look at the life of Queensland sugarcane cutters.

It shows itinerant workers contracting with a cane farmer, cutting the cane and loading it for transport, from early morning to dark.

Other sequences show the cutters in their quarters eating as much food as they need to carry out a tough job.

The film is straightforward in its approach: cane cutting is hard work, although the pay is good and the industry means much to Queensland, where five million tons of sugarcane have to be cut by hand in back-breaking conditions.

Cane Cutters is a National Film Board Production, produced by the Department of Information.

A Farmer's Life In Drought
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NFSA ID
2477
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It hasn’t rained for 18 months and 5,000 sheep have already perished. Farmer Max Russell is desperate to save his remaining flock and hands them over to a drover.

This is an excerpt from the film Drought, a segment of the series Australian Diary, produced by the National Film Board and Department of Information in 1968.

The Australian Diary series, filmed between 1947 and 1970, records how Australians have lived, worked and played over the years.

Each of these short black-and-white films provides a snapshot of Australian life at the time, from rural areas and small towns to capital cities.

Informative, entertaining and often amusing, the subjects range from serious to quirky and cover everything from innovations in agriculture, industry and science to sport, art, education, fashion, flora and fauna.

There are a total of 136 diaries with 440 individual stories, providing a picture of a proud, diverse, idiosyncratic and constantly changing nation.

WARNING: This clip may contain animal suffering
Repetitious Work Affects Migrant Women
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NFSA ID
7148
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Female migrant workers discuss the pain in their hands after long hours of sewing and repetitive factory work.

This clip is an excerpt from the film Teno (1984), produced by the Women’s Film Unit for Film Australia.

Teno looks at a widespread workplace illness, tenosynovitis – a crippling and often misunderstood disease.

The nature of modern work practices can inadvertently lead to the illness, which mostly strikes women, since they predominantly work in jobs requiring repetitious activity. This is especially evident among migrant workers.

The program also considers the responsibility of both employers and employees.

Peter Sculthorpe Composes
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420923
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Peter Sculthorpe wants to create a perfect work of art. He composed Irkanda One for Violin by tracing the landscape around Canberra on a 360-degree graph, then wrote music to follow the contours.

This clip consists of excerpts from Peter Sculthorpe, an episode of Australian Biography Series 7, produced in 1999.

In Peter Sculthorpe, the composer describes the way in which Australian history and landscape have influenced him and tells of the emotionally significant events in his life which have found expression in his music.

The Australian Biography series profiles some of the most extraordinary Australians of our time. Many have had a major impact on the nation’s cultural, political and social life.

All are remarkable and inspiring people who have reached a stage in their lives where they can look back and reflect. Through revealing in-depth interviews, they share their stories – of beginnings and challenges, landmarks and turning points.

In so doing, they provide us with an invaluable historical record and a unique perspective on the roads we, as a country, have travelled.

The full title is available to purchase via sales@nfsa.gov.au.

Pensioners Working Part-Time At A Co-Op
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NFSA ID
32893
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Some people experience retiring like hitting a brick wall, finding it hard to live on such a dramatically reduced income. Beehive is a seniors' employment co-operative where pensioners can work to earn a few extra dollars without affecting their social security payments.

This clip is an excerpt from Hitting A Brick Wall, an episode of the series Ageing in the New Age, produced in 1983 by Film Australia with the assistance of AMP Society.

Ageing in the New Age looks at issues relevant to an ageing population, including: approaching retirement, community support, living on a pension, elders in different cultural traditions, problems caused by dementia, and managing financial investments.

Ageing in the New Age was produced by Film Australia with the assistance of AMP Society.

Competing With Asian Clothing Tigers
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NFSA ID
256209
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The manager of a clothing factory explains how, in Australia, his shirt costs 42 cents a minute to manufacture while in China it costs 1 cent a minute.

Australia, in its desire to compete with the so-called 'Asian Tigers' of manufacturing, is pushing its workers to the limit.

This is an excerpt from the film Land of the Long Weekend, a Film Australia National Interest Program produced in 1994.

Land of the Long Weekend examines the concept of leisure and Australia as the first country in the world to institute a 40-hour working week and a fair and reasonable wage. Conditions like these helped win Australia its reputation as the mythical land of the long weekend.

Yet today, for those with work, overtime has increased and penalty rates are disappearing. The nation’s population is increasingly divided between the over-worked and the under-employed.

Now that Australia is more the land of the level playing field than the land of the long weekend, have we abandoned the idea of the 'fair go'?

The full title is available to purchase via sales@nfsa.gov.au.

The Timber Getters
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NFSA ID
14222
Year:
Year

In postwar Australia, the milling of our nation’s prized hardwood timbers was a rapidly growing industry.

Mechanisation introduced economies in the handling, but the skill and stamina of the axe workers were still indispensable in timber getting.

Axe workers established camps throughout the eucalypt forests in the early 20th century. They harevsted giant trees for the rapidly growing hardwood industry.

The Timber Getters was a National Film Board Production, produced by the Department of the Interior.

The Rail Way
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NFSA ID
32887
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The Rail Way offers a wideranging look at Australian railways, from the city underground to the railway of the remote outback.

Rare footage from 1910 shows camels carrying heavy supplies across the desert. Railway labourers are building the 1,400 km railway that will finally link Western Australia with the eastern States.

We see the six locomotive coal giants of central Queensland and the picturesque Normanton-Croydon rail car, epic journeys of the transcontinental Indian Pacific and a half-day vintage steam train excursion.

The Rail Way was produced by Film Australia for the Department of Transport.

An Outback Police Officer's Life
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NFSA ID
4370
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This is an excerpt from the film Outback Patrol, produced in 1952.

Outback Patrol, narrated by Chips Rafferty, follows the annual patrol of police officer Robert Darkin.

If there is a spot of lawbreaking, Darkin can convene a court but in this job he’s also collector of public monies, Commonwealth electoral returning officer, commissioner for affidavits for the Supreme Court, postmaster, inspector of stock, and registrar of births, deaths, marriages, mines, motor vehicles and dogs.

He checks that there is water in the government bores for the drovers and keeps an eye on the lone prospectors who roam the trackless hills and parched plains.

Other horse and camel teams, operating from scattered police stations, patrolled the whole Northern Territory.

The full title is available to purchase via sales@nfsa.gov.au.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons