No 'quiet quitting' for Christmas Island workers

Marinus van der Riet Schimmel
Thursday, 24 November 2022

In 1955 the District Officer of Christmas Island sent a telegram to Singapore requesting that more police be sent to the island. He feared that 250 newly-arrived labourers 'cannot be properly policed' with the current constabulary.

At the time, the British Phosphate Commission (BPC) was expanding mining activities and required more workers. The early workforce on Christmas Island had been made up of indentured Chinese labourers. By the 1950s indentured servitude was no longer the norm, but many labourers still came from countries including China and Malaysia via contractors in Singapore. This involved a screening process to ensure workers were suitable. However, as the BPC expanded its operations, the vetting was compromised to keep up the supply of labour required by the company.

On the periphery of Empire

From 1900 until 1957 Christmas Island was under the administration of the British Colony of Singapore, with the District Officer as the Crown's official representative. In the lead up to Singapore gaining independence from British rule, responsibility for the governance of Christmas Island was transferred to Australia. The correspondence between District Officer C McClaren Reid, his superiors, the Island Manager, and the Singaporean Commissioner of Police, are now held by the National Archives.

These records reveal the difficulties of administering phosphate mining, a transient workforce, and workers who were calling for better conditions. The letters also give agency to the workers whose voices have often been drowned out by the views of British (and later Australian) officials.


In 1956, a year after his initial request for more police, District Officer Reid wrote to the Singaporean Police Commissioner detailing trouble among the island's workforce. He complained of troublemakers who had distributed posters and flyers around worksites. These materials celebrated Labour Day and Reid pointed out:

you will notice that [they] end with the European style mark of interrogation, and that some of the others have exclamation marks.

Reid decried the relaxation of the screening process by the Singaporean labour contractors – noting that he didn’t receive the reports until weeks after the men had already arrived on Christmas Island. He also lamented that some of his new workers were members of 'secret organisations' – likely unions or other such worker-orientated groups.

Reid reported that of almost 100 new labourers that had arrived in late April, almost 40 had petitioned for higher pay. Having received no reply to their demand, 35 of these workers decided to strike. Reid rejected their call for better wages and 'offered' those who participated in the strike ‘the option of remaining at present rates or returning to Singapore’ on the next available vessel.

Going out with a bang

Thirty of these men elected to leave and requested permission from the District Officer to let off fireworks prior to their departure. Reid denied their request but reported that he would not be surprised if they disobeyed. Evidently, the 30 workers who fought to improve working conditions on the island saw cause to celebrate their efforts – quitting in the noisiest possible fashion.