Much more than money: the fight to recover the Stolen Wages
The powers to detain people of Aboriginal descent on reserves were introduced in every Australian State around the turn of last century and were predicated on the rhetoric of rescue and rehabilitation. Bureaucratic controls extinguished rights over movement, marriage, children, housing, education, employment and financial independence.
By December 1948 when Australia signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, nearly 7000 men, women and children were interned on government-sponsored settlements and missions in Queensland alone, under laws which empowered the State to transfer people of Aboriginal descent from family and country, without charge, trial, or right of appeal. Escape from confinement in search of family, work or freedom triggered police pursuit and forced return in handcuffs and sometimes chains, again outside any judicial consideration. Multiple escapees were commonly defined as ‘incorrigible’, and many languished in jails.
Today I want to look briefly at controls endured by Aboriginal people in the second half of the twentieth century,after Australia’s endorsement of the UN Declaration, keeping in mind several key Articles such as Article 2 which forbids “distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion”, Article 13 acknowledges that “everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state”, and Articles 23-25 affirm the right to free choice of employment, the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to rest and leisure, and the right to a standard of living “adequate for health and well-being”. Article 29 states that “in the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law” to protect the rights and freedoms of others.
Subsequent to 1948 the larger States of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory continued to corral Aboriginal people onto reserves on marginal land, and closely restricted travel and employment. The more closely settled southern States maintained fragmented reserves and institutionalised children by the hundreds, deliberately fracturing family bonds. In Queensland forced deportation to and between reserves continued into the 1970s, and in most States the number of Aboriginal children under institutional control today remains vastly disproportionate.
In every State, endorsement of the UN Declaration in 1948 had no effect in a century of neglect. Records show the supposedly remedial missions and reserves were under funded and under-resourced to an extent which would likely attract criminal charges in the wider community: they have always been places of malnutrition, preventable illnesses, massive infection loads, scandalous infant mortality and early deaths. In Queensland in the 1950s funding was as low as $7.50 per person per week, today’s value, and the tuberculosis rate was more than five times that of the free population. In the 1960s, malnutrition was identified as the key factor in 85 per cent of deaths of children under four, and the Anglican Bishop of Carpentaria directed his despairing pleas to the British Freedom from Hunger Campaign. In the 1970s 75 per cent of child outpatients at Palm Island hospital were severely underweight, and 90 per cent of water samples at Yarrabah tested unfit for human consumption. Under-supply of housing continues today, compounding physical and psychological desolation through entrenched overcrowding. For decades illnesses and epidemics have been attributed to noxious sanitation and drinking water, wretched diet, overcrowded housing and poor medical care – all easily rectified systemic defects. Australian States have blatantly breached their commitment to provide a standard of living “adequate for health and well-being” for the thousands of families taken into ‘protective’ custody.
I want to turn now to the right to free choice of employment and the right to equal pay for equal work, taking Queensland as an example of government practice. Here it was compulsory for every able-bodied Aboriginal on a reserve to work for inferior rations and shelter. The government did not implement a wage structure until after 1968, and then it decided to pay these employees 50 per cent the amount calculated nationally as the minimum for family survival. In 1979, knowing its underpayment breached federal and State laws, the government paid these workers only 72 per cent of the minimum wage. When community councils took over wages in 1986, the government was still illegally paying only 75 per cent of the award rate, having settled several cases out of court to avoid public exposure. Despite conclusive incriminating evidence against it, in 1996 the government contested but lost an action by several workers before a Human Rights Commission inquiry. The Beattie Labor government subsequently offered compensation of $7000 to each affected worker in 1999, a settlement currently totalling around $40 million. But a simple calculation of workforce numbers and wage deficits shows workers were cheated by around $187 million in the period 1975-1986. Clearly the government has profited massively from this illegal, unethical, and blatantly discriminatory practice.
And what of the thousands of men, women and children contracted to the pastoral industry at a fraction the white wage, in forced separations from family, friends and community? In 1919 that wage fraction was set at 66 per cent, but in 1948, when Australia was celebrating the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Queensland government was trading around 5000 workers at only 37 per cent the white rate, prompting the director of Native Affairs to boast: “they continue to prove a valuable asset”. In fact between 1931-1961 the government failed to secure the official rate in every year: Aboriginal wages dropped to only 31 per cent in 1951. Multiply the workforce by the deficit – even to the 66 per cent rate – and you get a $200 million loss to Aboriginal workers at the hands of the government which was blatantly in contravention of the UN Declaration. Equal wages were not endorsed in Australia until 1968, twenty years after our international affirmation of equal rights. Until that time, under the Queensland system, only part of the wage was given to the worker, but so flawed was this pocket money scheme that officials themselves described it as futile, a farce, useless, and a direct profit to employers. After sixty years in operation auditors observed there was still no way to confirm if workers got their money. Estimated losses between 1920 and 1968 on this portion alone exceed $250 million.
Until 1968 the balance of Aboriginal wages, between 25-80 percent, went directly to police protectors as agents of the government. Despite countless warnings, the government failed ever to protect these confiscated savings which were prey to fraud, negligence and official misappropriation. Records show that in the 1920s the government was warned pilfering was rife, in 1932 departmental vigilance was described as ‘totally inadequate’; in the 1940s internal checks were declared to be ineffective; in 1965 many withdrawals could not be authenticated; in 1967 systemic defects were said to allow ‘room for fraud’; in 1974 head office controls were still categorised as faulty. To date the government has refused a public accounting for hundreds of millions of dollars of Aboriginal savings which were hostage to this entrenched official negligence.
In the context of public circulation of this evidence and impending litigation against it, the Queensland government last year offered $55.4 million as settlement for all claims by workers whose losses are estimated at more than ten times that amount. The State demands an indemnity from any who accept the $2000 or $4000 offer, but it refuses to supply each complainant with their financial records; people will be signing without knowledge of their full entitlement. This is an abuse of human rights; it is a perversion of justice.
There is a pressing need for much more than money. Aboriginal people, by their thousands, worked to develop our nation but were excluded from its wealth. They worked but were paid a pittance; they worked but were denied the right to prosper from their effort and skills. Refused full access to their earnings they could build no asset base for their families and descendants; indeed, as is all too obvious, the imposed poverty jeopardised their very survival. The myth of European philanthropy and Aboriginal incapacity is grounded in our skewed and partial knowledge of our history which veils and refutes these truths. It is from this distorted history that our prime minister denies the Stolen Generations, and our premier claims his government is acting “generously” and “in the spirit of reconciliation” in proffering a settlement which is, he says, “as much as the State can bear”. But this is not the State’s money to bestow or withhold within budget comfort. This is Aboriginal earnings and entitlements which the State as trustee was legally bound to safeguard.
In every State Aboriginal workers were similarly cheated of their wages, their child endowment entitlements and their inheritances. We need to determine the extent of Aboriginal labour and its contribution to the development of our nation; we need to ascertain how this labour was valued by those who used it, in terms of both cash and skills. We need to estimate the financial loss to workers through discounted wages, theft, fraud, and incompetent accounting. We need to put a figure on the profits of the pastoral industry and the States as they exploited this disempowered social group for their convenience. We need to explode the damnable myths of Aboriginal ineptitude, indolence and financial incompetence which are still peddled today as some sort of ‘racial’ explanation for contemporary destitution and despair.
Last year Justice Marcus Einfeld described this missing money, these Stolen Wages, as “a matter of national significance” warranting investigation by an independent federal or Human Rights Commission. As we celebrate 55 years’ support for these acclaimed human rights standards, I urge the federal government to honour Article 10, which affirms that everyone is entitled in full equity to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of their rights and obligations. In America, after a seven-year and continuing legal battle over missing private monies, the Blackfeet people of Montana have won Court directives demanding the government provide a full accounting for every cent of Indian money intercepted and controlled from 1887. We need such an accounting in Australia also, as the basis to assess entitlement and compensation.
But while we’re waiting for the marvellous revelation of ethics and integrity which might prompt such a national Inquiry, a few of us are working towards establishing a National Report which will survey labour, wages and financial controls in each State, including the testimony of families caught up in these systems. We are hoping, at a minimum, to explode the myths which trivialise and marginalise those who also built our nation, and we are hoping to prepare the public mind to acknowledge the enormous debt – both financial and historical – which remains unreported and unpaid.