Stolen wages offer a 'slap in the face' says WA Aboriginal Legal Service

Stolen wages compensation: Two few, Too little

Vanessa Mills ABC Kimberley

Would you work for two quid a week? That was the going rate for an Aboriginal stockman on a Kimberley station in the 1950s. But even then, wages could be withheld, paid directly into the store for "keep", or "pocket money" given instead.

There was once no aspect of an Aboriginal person's life that the government of the day did not control. Marriage, birth, wages, pension, property, family, class status... it's a long list that people are still feeling the effects of today.

Part of the policies included siphoning wages or entitlements like pensions into trust funds or other accounts managed by religious, government or business groups. Few of those funds, if at all, were repaid to the Aboriginal people who had earned them.

It was a national practise for more than 150 years, and some reparation has been made by some states.

The West Australian Government has made an offer of up to $2000 for Aboriginal people who: were born before 1958, lived and worked on Government run native welfare settlements, who had some or all of their money managed, and get their application into the Indigenous Affairs Department before September this year.

Minister Peter Collier expects a limited number of people to apply - 1,500 at the most.

For 68 year old stockman and drover Geoffery Fletcher the offer is "weak".

Born on Moola Bulla, a government run welfare settlement, in 1944 Geoffery spent his life working on stations for a few bob, but mostly "a shirt, hat and boot." He and others were too scared to ask for wages they thought they had rightfully earned but were withheld.

Minister Collier says pastoral workers won't be eligible for this ex-gratia payment.

That's incensed Mark bin Bakar, Director of the Kimberley Aboriginal Stolen Generation Corporation and West Australian of the Year in 2008. Mr bin Bakar says while it's good the government has begun to address the stolen wages issue, the narrow conditions of the offer and the amount is an insult.

Stolen wages, and the complex network of accounts set up to manage Aboriginal entitlements, has long been of interest to Queensland based historian Dr Ros Kidd, whose published numerous reports and books on the topic. These include a 2007 report called Hard Labour Stolen Wages which includes a detailed chapter on the Kimberley.

Dr Kidd says the WA is low, and she hopes it doesn't come with a condition that someone could not take the matter further, even through the courts, if they accepted. She says pastoral workers, and other industries which relied on Aboriginal labour, should be included in reparation.

Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia
Aboriginal Legal Service
of Western Australia

ALSWA Media Release IndyMedia 7 March 2012

The Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (ALSWA) has slammed the WA State Government's offer of up to $2000.00 to Aboriginal workers whose past wages were stolen by the state.

"This is a slap in the face and a cruel and heartless offer which offends the very notion of recompense," said ALSWA CEO Adjunct Professor Dennis Eggington.

"This is not just about stolen wages or pensions that were withheld, nor is it about coming up with an equitable scheme. This state's economic power was built upon the backs of hard working, proud Indigenous men and women who had their hard earned wages withheld. To now offer these people such a paltry amount diminishes the contributions that our people have made. Any offer made must also ensure that monies are repaid in terms of today's monetary value," said Mr. Eggington.

This offer comes six years after ALSWA's submission to the Senate Inquiry into Stolen Wages recommending the just return of stolen wages to Aboriginal workers. OThis offer is an affront to all fair minded Western Australians who believe in common decency and a fair go and it is a vile and disgusting breach of the duty of this state to those whose wages were stolen," said Mr. Eggington. "In a state that is reaping a fortune from the resource sector to offer nothing more than the crumbs off the table is reminiscent of the mission ration days. In the current economic climate it is hardly any better than flour and tea."

Many Indigenous workers had their wages withheld in trust accounts by successive state governments and with the early mortality rate of Indigenous adults, many have not survived long enough to see their wages returned. "This is not just about paying back what was stolen in today's value, but also rewriting this state's shameful history to ensure that the contributions made by our people are rightfully acknowledged. ALSWA urges the Indigenous Affairs Minister, Peter Collier to retract the offensive offer and begin urgent negotiations to settle upon a fair and equitable amount commensurate with the valuable contributions that Indigenous men and women have made to WA. "The significant legacy these people left this state was paid for in blood, sweat and tears and to have this measured so meagrely is heart breaking to those who have survived and insulting to the families of those who didn't," said Mr. Eggington.

ALSWA will be encouraging people to continue down the path of litigation and not settle for anything less than they are entitled to. "It's a disgraceful and insulting offer and will not deter ALSWA from seeking legal advice about taking action against the State," said Mr. Eggington.

ALSWA Media Enquiries to ALSWA Media Officer Jodi Hoffmann on 0428 948 610 -ALSWA Website

"Stolen wages" payments

ABC News Perth March 06, 2012

The Indigenous Affairs Minister, Peter Collier, has announced that ex-gratia payments will be made to Aboriginal people whose wages were taken from them.

Between 1905 and 1972, successive governments held some Indigenous workers' wages in trust funds which the workers could not access.

A taskforce recommended more than three years ago that action be taken to remedy the situation.

Mr Collier has announced ex-gratia payments will now be offered.

He says $2 million has been allocated and he expects no more than 1,500 people to apply.

"I think I can understand why some people may feel that it's perhaps not adequate," he said.

"It did take a lot longer than I would have preferred I've got to be honest with you.

"But having said that we've got an outcome today so for those people that did have their wages taken from them over that period of time it is a good news story."

The Aboriginal Legal Service's Dennis Eggington says the proposed payments are disgusting.

"If the Government thinks they can offer some paltry, meanly little up to $2,000 when the factual evidence exists then they've got another thing coming," he said.

He says the ALS is now considering legal action and wants to ensure the families of the affected workers will also be compensated.

The Opposition's Indigenous Affairs spokesman, Ben Wyatt, also says the money is not enough.

"The Minister needs to understand that those who are living who had their wages stolen are actually a small proportion of all those who did," he said.

"He needs to open that up to the descendants of people who had their wages stolen to ensure that we actually do get closure over a very dark chapter in our state's history."

In 2010, the then Indigenous Affairs minister Kim Hames said he was embarrassed about how long it had taken to release the taskforce's report but it was still withheld.

Mr Collier says the Government has now dealt with the issue.

"We have identified the problem, we've taken action and we're corrected the problem," he said.

WA to make 'stolen wages' reparations

AAP Sydney Morning Herald March 6, 2012

Aboriginal people born before 1958 who were subjected to state-sanctioned financial controls are eligible for the payment. Photo: Greg Newington

The West Australian government says it will pay reparations of up to $2000 each to Aboriginal people who lost out under the "stolen wages" regime imposed by past governments.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier announced the ex gratia payments today for eligible Aboriginal people born before 1958 who were subjected to state-sanctioned financial controls up to 1972. Applicants will be required to complete a statutory declaration and will have six months to lodge their application with WA's Department of Indigenous Affairs.

Under past legislation such as the Aborigines Act 1905 and the Native Welfare Act 1963, employers of Aboriginal people, including successive state governments between 1905 and 1972, held money and property belonging to Aboriginal people in a complex network of trust accounts.

The practice has become known as 'stolen wages'.

Mr Collier said WA was the third state to adopt reparation programs for 'stolen wages' following the 2006 recommendations of the Commonwealth Parliament Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

"The control of wages was permitted under legislation, which gave the Department of Native Welfare the power to hold up to 75 per cent of earnings in a trust account," he said in a statement.

"This was one of many unfortunate controls imposed on Aboriginal people by federal and state governments across Australia, and this state government is committed to bringing this unfortunate matter to a conclusion."

He said reparation payments of up to $2000 would be made to those Aboriginal people still living and able to give evidence that entitlements were withheld from them.

Mr Collier said most of the documentation about the accounts and monies held in trust had been lost, along with verification of who was affected and how much was held.

"For this reason, we have taken the decision to provide a reparation payment to those who can show they were affected," he said.