An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work: Fighting for Stolen Wages
Australia is a land of many myths. There is the primary myth of the great empty continent. Secondary myths include the intrepid explorers, valiant pioneers, battling families on marginal country, and golden opportunities for everyone who is willing to work. These myths of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries persist today in thousands of minds that remain blind and deaf to the glaring errors and omissions. What of the thousands of tribes and possibly a million people who predated white arrival by eons? What of the skilled bushmen and women who watched, guided and rescued so many explorers? What of the countless families who laboured unrewarded for decades, securing the prosperity of so many rural pioneers? What of the pathological conditions endured by thousands during decades of government interventions supposedly in their best interests? What of child labour continuing after the mid-twentieth century? What of people compelled to work into the late twentieth century in unbearable conditions for starvation wages?
Today it is these families on whom I want to focus: the Aboriginal workforce that was an essential component of our national development but remains virtually invisible in our national history.
There has been endless debate about whether or not the practice of interning Aboriginal families under government control exemplifies enlightened paternalism or breathtaking racism. The ‘enlightened paternalism’ argument incorporates its own justifications: we only took those who needed rescuing; we gave them opportunities they were otherwise denied; we offered a ‘similar manner of living’ to mainstream Australians. And of course the corollary is: well, we’ve done our best to fix their problems with targetted welfare, buckets of money and endless policy adjustments, but somehow they are still mired in ill-health, fraught domestic circumstances, chronic under employment and crippling poverty. It’s still characterised as an Aboriginal problem.
But this historical leap from then to now neatly omits the in-between years – the reality of life for those subjected to this magnanimous intent. If the finishing point is today, then the starting point must be governments nationally taking absolute control over Aboriginal lives at the turn of last century. In every State, in some cases into the 1970s, people literally could not move from one place to another without scrutiny or permission. They were routinely denied standard medical care. They were denied standard wages and working conditions. Their children were denied standard education, which, incidentally, was mandatory for all children. By their thousands families were condemned to abject poverty and derelict shelter.
All this took place with the full knowledge, if not by the direct orders, of State governments in the guise of ‘protection’. In every State authorities amassed thousands of files charting all the details, decade after decade. State governments ran Aboriginal lives, and if we are to understand the present predicament we must look at the machinery of that management. Exactly how did governments so comprehensively corrupt their stated intent to protect and enhance the lives of those people they took into custody?
Even before specific State laws around 1900, police and protectors around Australia removed Aboriginal children from their parents under laws relating to destitute children or Reformatory schools. All children removed to mainstream industrial schools or reformatories were sent out to work as domestics or labourers, although Aboriginal children were often contracted out before the minimum age of 12 years. At the institutions and in employment, contact with family was stifled. In the southern States of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, Aboriginal children won a degree of freedom after the age of 21. In Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, however, internment and contracted labour typically were life sentences.
Early in the twentieth century institutionalisation was abandoned for white children because it was deemed positively harmful; yet the incarceration of Aboriginal children and families intensified. The southern States took thousands of children into mainstream institutions and indentured employment into recent times. In New South Wales, from around 1912, 80 per cent of child removals were girls under 14 years who were processed into the domestic service market; for decades between 300-400 girls were thereby barred from family and freedom. Victoria, like New South Wales, closed Aboriginal stations and reserves early last century. They evicted families to struggle in the wider community where their exclusion from mainstream welfare programs and often from full-paying jobs, condemned them to poverty and accelerated the removal of their children. By the late 1950s more than 10 per cent of Victorian Indigenous children were trapped in institutions; and in South Australia child inmate numbers doubled between 1957 and 1959. All became fodder for the domestic service and farm labour market.
The larger States of Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory primarily processed children into and through missions and settlements. These States condoned underage child labour in the pastoral industry into the 1960s, whereas white child labour ceased from the 1920s. In 1957 the Queensland director of Native Affairs, admitting the prevalence of broken limbs and other injuries, merely suggested that graziers limit employment of ‘undersize and weedy’ children, adding, ‘We try to look on these people as human beings’. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory authorities knew children and women were co-opted to heavy male work, that government rations were misused as punishment, and that living conditions were commonly deplorable. Yet the so-called protectors continued to supply the industry with cut-rate servants who rarely saw any cash for their work.
The missions and settlements, to which people were sent ‘for their own good’, were commonly funded at a fraction the rate provided for white institutions. Consequently these reserves are still characterised as places of hunger, defective amenities, decrepit shelter, sickness and early deaths. In the 1960s a medical survey of Queensland Aboriginal reserves found malnutrition was the key factor in deaths of 50% of children under three and 85% of children under four. Half of all neonatal deaths and 47% of all deaths of children under 16 were from gastroenteritis or pneumonia, both diseases of defective or inadequate conditions.
The Queensland government was well aware of the atrocious conditions on these ‘welfare’ institutions. Reports from doctors, health inspectors and managers, and petitions from residents, piled up year by year on official files. Even in the 1960s rations for reserve workers in Queensland were known to fail the State’s own minimum requirements, yet these were the only return for the compulsory labour demanded of every able-bodied individual, including children retained in the dormitories. Only in 1968 did Queensland start paying its Aboriginal workforce, but at 50% the minimum wage; that is, half the amount deemed essential to feed a white family of four. And community stores ran at profits of up to 40%.
In the early 1970s at Palm Island there were 165 homes for 1300 people. Few had fridges or beds and the store routinely ran out of milk and fresh food. Malnutrition was cited as the cause of rampant salmonella and gastroenteritis. 75% of child outpatients were severely underweight. And remember, these are the children and adults detained by the State, ostensibly ‘for their own good’. Yet the State, the supposed benefactor, was paying these employees only 58% the basic wage in the 1970s.
Of course it was not illegal to underpay Aboriginal workers prior to the 1975 federal Racial Discrimination Act. Employee numbers on Queensland reserves varied from 3000 to 4000 between 1920 and 1975 and included nurses, cooks, teachers, dressmakers, road builders, carpenters, plumbers, stockmen, farmers, mill hands and power house workers. Their financial loss relative to the basic wage over that 55-year period increased from around $13 million annually to $25 million, today’s value.
After 1975 the story of Aboriginal wages is more certain and more shameful. Queensland Cabinet simply decided to continue underpaying community workers, deliberately breaking State and Federal law. In the period up to 1986, when community councils took control of payrolls, the State cheated these workers of around $187 million. And remember, we’re not talking the distant past here, and we’re not talking unfortunate oversight. We’re talking present times and deliberate calculated deceit. Queensland fought and lost an action before the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1996, and later offered affected claimants $7000 each. That’s a total payout of around $40 million: the State’s illegal gain is over three times that amount.
Records confirm that the pastoral industry in Queensland would not have survived without the thousands of men, women and children forcibly contracted at cheap rates from the turn of last century. This conscripted labour was, as the head of the Queensland department boasted in 1948 “a valuable asset” to both the industry and the State. Comparison of the base stockman’s rate in each year with the wage actually paid shows an industry profit per worker of around $4000 annually during the years 1920/68. With an average workforce of around 4500 per year, that’s just on $18 million each year stripped out of Aboriginal pockets for a 48-year period, compared with the white wage. And it was the government that allowed this to happen.
The costs of gross mismanagement of the wages of this contracted workforce runs into millions of dollars. There was no legal duty to pay full wages prior to 1975, but Queensland had a stated policy from 1919 to pay pastoral workers 66% the white rate. But in every year between 1931/61 the government did not demand even this discounted amount, a failure that cost workers $200 million. The major portion of wages went directly to police protectors where audits and inquiries frequently revealed it was prey to fraud and negligent defaults. Losses here are similarly scandalous. And the fraction supposedly paid direct to workers was so poorly processed that it was condemned regularly in every decade and into the mid-1960s. There is no doubt the State knew its system was defective. Losses here, conservatively estimated, could be as high as $250 million.
The Queensland government took levies from private savings accounts without the knowledge or consent of workers, there was frequent official misuse of Trust funds by government, there was child endowment withheld and diverted to capital works, and deceased estates absorbed into consolidated revenue even where beneficiaries had been identified. It is not surprising that so many who worked for decades found little in their accounts when they finally got control of their savings in the 1970s. This information comes from the State’s records; it proves authorities knew what was happening. In my opinion, this is close to institutionalised theft – across generations.
This raft of lost and stolen monies is termed the Stolen Wages. Queensland is not alone in this shameful abuse of financial responsibility, although we do not yet have comparative financial data for other States and the Northern Territory. In southern States many of the thousands of people institutionalised as children and contracted to work have not been able to retrieve their full wages from departmental Trust funds after their release from State control. We know that child endowment, paid in bulk to missions and institutions, was not fully distributed. In New South Wales in 1930, in the midst of the world’s worst depression, the Protection Board pocketed almost ₤28,000 (almost $1.4 million) of child endowment entitlements, effectively stealing from mothers and children. Only after 1960 did Victoria and New South Wales stop intercepting child endowment.
When the Commonwealth paid child endowment after 1941, Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory not only intercepted the money but also immediately cut government funding for rations and support by the same amount. In the mid-1940s in the Northern Territory, the twelve missions profited annually by over ₤28,000 ($1.2 million), but gave no accounting for distribution to mothers and children. In fact the Native Affairs department suggested they use it for schools, dormitories, clinics and training centers – all patently State responsibilities. Queensland similarly diverted child endowment to capital works including vehicles, a recreation hall, child welfare clinic, and transit hostel. Endowment and pensions were also streamed into consolidated revenue, a practice that yielded three-quarters of a million dollars in 1964 and was deplored by auditors. Even in 1984 Queensland still processed child endowment through the department’s major operational Trust fund. The States have profited hugely from the destitution of Aboriginal mothers and children.
In the Kimberleys, into the 1950s, pastoralists disputed distribution of child endowment on their stations because it decreased the dependence of their workers. Yet these men were entrusted with distribution of endowment into the 1960s without proper scrutiny, despite knowledge that some mothers were charged for rations supplied free by the State. Pastoralists in the Northern Territory similarly distributed endowment unchecked. In the early 1960s Northern Territory missions got around 40 per cent of their income from social security benefits, far more than from State grants. Western Australian missions still relied on bulk endowment payments into the 1970s. Remember, these benefits were intended for the most impoverished mothers and children in our nation, not to relieve State Treasuries of their lawful obligations.
This appalling history of institutional impoverishment, of gross failure of fiduciary duty, and of fraud and negligence at all levels, has cost Aboriginal workers nationally millions and millions of dollars during the twentieth century and is the root cause of destitution and despair which continues today. No State has given a public account of their negligent, and too frequently nefarious, dealings on Aboriginal entitlements. We know the Queensland government has spent $1.5 million on research, but solely to defend itself against legal action by former wards. In maintaining an information vacuum, States around Australia seem desperate to conceal the truth of their offences and failures. Meanwhile they – and most mainstream media – continue to depict endemic poverty, sickness, despair, alcoholism, abuse and self-destructive behaviour as facets of an intractable ‘Aboriginal problem’.
So how are people to get their money back?
There are three strategies in our current battle to achieve justice – legal challenges, independent inquiries, and public outrage. In Queensland, where intensive private research quantifies the magnitude of official malpractice, lawyers have offered to act pro bono to bring claims against the government. Already there have been settlements for Stolen Wages and also for workers claiming far more than the $7000 offered for under award wage reparations. While it is certainly fantastic that people can settle for what they feel is fair compensation, my personal dream is for a case to go through the courts, with detail after detail – such as you have heard today – streamed via radio and television into thousands of minds which previously only knew what governments chose to spin in their direction. Without a doubt, every person can relate to the right of a worker or pensioner to reclaim what has been stolen from them, particularly by governments.
Our second project is exposing Stolen Wages as a national scandal. Today I have merely touched the surface of gross dereliction of duty in all States and the Northern Territory. There are people, like aunty Marjorie Woodrow here in New South Wales, who have been pursuing their entitlement for several years, and people in other States now joining the fight after learning of progress in Queensland. During last year several of us have been working towards bringing to reality Justice Marcus Einfeld’s affirmation that there should be a national inquiry into Aboriginal labour and financial management. We want a core group in each State and Territory to compile written and oral experiences of these controls, in the context of the enabling legal and regulatory framework and evidence of administrative policies and practices.
This National Report needs to be tightly formulated, the written statements legally presentable, and the timeframe around twelve months. We already have a gratifying list of volunteers. If you would like to participate as a volunteer or as a potential claimant, or just to be kept informed, please contact email@example.com. We are currently applying for funding to cover secretariat and communication needs. The National Report will be presented to the Prime Minister as evidence that a top-level National Inquiry is incontrovertibly overdue.
Our third strategy is to communicate our battle to the average Joe and Kylie Public through articles, public talks etc. The Indigenous media, in particular the National Indigenous Times, have done a magnificent job in publicising the Stolen Wages fight. We have also gained great support from a range of unions nationally which are disseminating background information through links to their web sites and from the shop floor.
So, what of government responses? In May 2002, faced with 4000 potential litigants, the Labor government in Queensland offered people $2000 or $4000, depending on age, as total compensation for a lifetime’s lost or stolen wages. No one will get money until they first indemnify the government against all future legal actions. The government refuses to supply all claimants with their personal work records, so most have no idea of their real entitlements, and few realise the wealth of incriminating evidence which would support claims for the full amount.
Unions nationally have joined the fight. They are distributing some of the 50,000 specially designed Postcards now circulating which protest against the Beattie government’s pitiful offer and demand new negotiations. These Postcards are brilliantly crafted in three parts: one is signed and sent to the premier, one goes to the head of the Queensland Council of Unions (to count responses), and the last is pinned to your fridge, alongside the terrorist-alert magnet if you so choose. For Postcards and further information just slot ‘ANTaR National’ into your search engine. Following the recent State election we have a new minister, and have intensified our lobbying on three primary points: that the ‘offer’ be considered a down payment until full entitlements are independently assessed; that there be genuine community participation in the process; and that all workers who had the misfortune to die before the May 2002 cut-off point be included through their descendants.
A few weeks ago the National Indigenous Times broke the sensational Proposal by the New South Wales government to compensate those whose money had been withheld and misused by successive regimes during the twentieth century. Unlike Queensland’s offer, this 2001 Proposal, which includes input from Crown Law, admits the government was trustee for all seized earnings and entitlements, that Treasury profited considerably through the seizure of these monies, that the seizure represented a ‘shameful execution of government policy’, that there has been a policy of lying about Aboriginal funds still held by the government, that records are so unreliable all claims should be assumed valid, and that claims of deceased persons, described as ‘rightful owners’ of part of the Trust funds, will be recognised through their descendants. Do not let your government resile from these admissions.
The New South Wales Proposal of up to $69 million for an estimated 11,500 claimants means around $6000 per person, much higher than Queensland’s $2000 or $4000. It also compensates for a far lower loss, since many Queensland workers were trapped in the contract labour system for a lifetime; although mothers, pensioners and heirs to deceased estates have been similarly deprived of desperately needed finances over decades.
It is clear that both governments remain resolutely in handout mode, generously ‘offering’ what they can comfortably afford. Premier Beattie told parliament his offer was a win for the taxpayers, and New South Wales rejected the higher Reserve Bank assessment, instead choosing a ‘fair value’ ratio because it wouldn’t ‘inappropriately impact on government resources’. But this has nothing to do with fiscal comfort or political generosity. This is about governments acknowledging decades of negligence and theft. This is about legal redress for gross dereliction of duty. This is about returning stolen monies to the rightful owners.
Around Australia, at the turn of last century, governments introduced legislation they said would ‘protect’ Aboriginal people. It now matters little whether their intent was benign or bigoted. What matters is the appalling toll on the well being, lives and futures of thousands of people they took into custody. One way or another, States must take responsibility for entrenched incompetent and illicit practices. Any other scandal of this magnitude would trigger a high-level independent inquiry to establish the true extent of custodial neglect and the true figure of such disgraceful expropriation. Until then no government in Australia has any idea of their full financial indebtedness, and current restitution packages must be considered down payments only.
Our national debt is not only financial but also historical. We need to explode the damnable myths of Aboriginal ineptitude, indolence and financial incompetence that are still peddled today as some sort of ‘racial’ explanation for contemporary destitution and despair. We need to reveal just who profited from Aboriginal labour and by how much. We have everything to gain by encompassing all of our history, and only our prejudices and ignorance to lose.