Washing, work and wellness

Laundry staff and corporation directors in front of the self-contained laundry

With a robust public laundry, Bagala Aboriginal corporation is improving hygiene and creating jobs—both especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barunga, Northern Territory: A year ago, directors of Bagala Aboriginal Corporation launched a project to improve health and create jobs: a robust local public laundry. The Aboriginal community of Barunga is 80 kilometres south-east of Katherine. It’s famous both for the Barunga Statement (calling for a treaty) presented in 1988 to then prime minister Bob Hawke, and as home of the Barunga Festival of music, sport, arts and culture.

Like many remote Top End communities, Barunga is also home to complex health issues stemming from crowded living conditions and very low incomes. One serious threat is scabies—tiny mites that cause terrible itching and can pass from person to person via close contact, clothing and bedding. The resulting sores enable bacteria to flourish, which can in turn lead to a raft of serious health issues like rheumatic heart disease. A public laundry with a reliable source of power, water and detergent is an important part of the solution to this unacceptable situation.

Staff and corporation directors at the new laundry in Barunga

Bagala Aboriginal Corporation directors with laundry staff at the launch in 2019. Freddie Scrubby is back row on the left.

Bagala’s laundry came about as a business opportunity that would serve the community’s needs as well as provide sustainable employment. Chair of the board of Bagala Aboriginal Corporation, Esther Bulumbara, was a strong advocate for it:

For our people to be healthy, having a job is just as important as good hygiene. The laundry provides both, so it’s a good initiative.

Aboriginal Investment Group (AIG) funded the building and design costs, and continues to support the corporation to maintain the laundry and plan for its future.

Barunga’s laundry comprises four industrial-scale washers and dryers and it all fits into a shipping container. Strong and durable, it opens and closes by way of a huge hydraulic arm.

The laundry employs five locals—four casuals and one part-timer—and they’re happy to have the work. For Freddie Scrubby it’s the first proper, waged position he’s ever had. It’s also become a destination for school excursions.

School students in Barunga on an excursion to the self-contained laundry

School excursion to the laundry

Agile, responsive governance

When the laundry opened, the corporation was charging $4 per load for washing and drying, and six months after the launch, usage was low. The fee seemed to be deterring Barunga residents from making use of this significant service for hygiene and health.

In September 2019, the board resolved to make it free to use the laundry and to send a bus, every Wednesday, to go round the community to take people and their washing to and from the laundry. Esther Bulambara reflects on the decision to change their business model:

People needed the laundry to be free, and they needed help to get there and back. As soon as we made it more accessible, the washing really took off. We’ve now done over 2200 loads. We’re proud of that, and happy to be contributing to our community’s health.

To cover the shortfall in finances, the corporation and AIG are pursuing philanthropic donations and corporate sponsorship.

For AIG and Bagala Aboriginal Corporation, the Barunga laundry is a pilot project. AIG’s plan has always been to expand; to work with six other Top End communities to set up their own laundry, with the support of local Aboriginal corporations.

Evidence of the impact of the laundry on long-term health outcomes will take time to compile. But clearly, this corporation has the will and the agility to succeed. And of course, any initiative working to improve hygiene in vulnerable communities is essential, now and into the future, as we adapt in anticipation of COVID-19 and future threats.

Congratulations, Bagala, for helping the community to take a load off—or put a load on. And best wishes with fundraising to make the venture sustainable. Readers who want to keep up with the Barunga laundry load count, or donate to support the initiative, take a spin over on the Remote Laundries charity website.