Working for the man
If I was a young Aboriginal woman in Queensland between the 1920s and the late 1960s there would be a one two chance that my life was totally controlled by the government. I would have no rights about where I lived, where and when I worked, my own future or the futures of my children. I would probably be removed to a government settlement where I would be separated from my mother and siblings from the age of five and confined in a dormitory, taught only basic English and arithmetic, and trained as domestic servant. At 13 or 14 I would be given some clothes and sent to a town or a remote cattle station to start my life of work. Many young boys were also sent to work on the stations, along with men and women trapped in a 51-week labour cycle – working for the man. The files show there was nothing to protect external workers from abuses: there were initially no limits on how many hours were worked, how hard the labour, how bad the treatment, provision of food and living quarters.
Minimum conditions were introduced in 1919 but there were no inspections to enforce them. In 1921 the chief protector admitted shelter for many Aboriginal workers was ‘worse than they would provide for their pet horse, motor-car or prize cattle’; in 1936 on one station families were forced to live in the open with no protection from the rain or cold winds; in the 1940s it was reported most employers in the Gulf area thought ‘anything is good enough for a nigger’; in 1959 one group of workers lived in an open shed without any bedding, light or table, paid only tobacco and matches each week. All these things the government knew, because they are on file at head office. Only in 1956, after the system had run for 60 years, did the government instruct industrial inspectors to include Aboriginal employees in their tours of rural areas. Even then, as the records show, abuses continued – sexual assaults, wet living quarters, rough handling, beatings with chains, lack of water and cooking facilities, and widespread hookworm and ill health, especially among children.
As one of thousands of people under government control in Queensland, this would have been my life over many years, no idea what I was paid or if I was paid, my money going straight to the protector except for a pittance of pocket money, and even that was not certain. If I asked for some of my money to spend the protector would give me little, or none at all. If I married, or when I was too old to work, I would live out my days in the poverty of the settlement. And often I might wonder: what happened to my money?
One of our enduring myths is that the Australian economy was built on the sheep’s back; that our wonderful rural wealth during the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century made us the lucky country we are today. We hear nothing about the huge nameless army of unpaid and underpaid Aboriginal labour upon which this wealth depended; generations of workers who even now are rarely acknowledged. I believe this is because official files that chart the critical value of the Aboriginal labour force, reveal also the entrenched and shameful exploitation of work and wages by the governments that controlled Aboriginal employment into the early 1970s.
Each state government, and the commonwealth government in the Northern Territory from 1911 to 1928, carefully crafted laws controlling Aboriginal lives and labour, and surveillance systems to force individuals to abide by them. Government dictated where and when you worked, the type and conditions of that work, what you might be paid and if you could spend it. In Queensland, until 1968 in rural areas and until 1979 on government settlements, Aboriginal legislation over-rode the whole raft of industrial protections enjoyed by every other Australian worker. So to understand the entrenched poverty over generations of working men and women, we must analyse the actions of government.
Consider the facts from the government’s own files. By 1907 there were more than 3000 contracted Aboriginal workers, many working where white labour was unavailable. Often regarded as more reliable and superior stockriders and bushmen than their white counterparts, but sold to the pastoral industry for around 3 per cent the white rate. In the early 1930s when white rural labour was described as ‘often useless’ and Aboriginal labour ‘indispensable’, 4500 Aboriginal workers were sold at around 40 per cent the award rate for more than a decade. And if they couldn’t keep their families on this pittance, they were removed to a settlements. By the mid 1960s the 5000 workers were paid only 70 per cent the award rate. After the ‘equal pay’ judgement of 1966 workers under state control were termed ‘trainees’ and still sold at a discount, although most had decades of skill and experience. Only after 1972 were workers free to choose their employment and demand the legal wage. So the government’s own records confirm that the prime motivator for the Aboriginal labour market was the needs of rural industries – the supply of as many men and women as required for a price that the market claimed it could bear. Send them out to the remote areas that white workers shunned, arrest them and return them if they abscond, don’t look too closely at hours and conditions.
But that was only half the story. The other half, even more shameful in my opinion, was the rank financial exploitation of this captive workforce. There is no doubt that generations of Aboriginal people were mired in poverty despite decades of contracted work. While they were trapped in poverty, the government grew fat on their earnings. At the start of the twentieth century, to ‘protect’ Aboriginal earnings from European cunning and Aboriginal incapacity, wages were paid direct to local police protectors who controlled Aboriginal access to their own money. The government knew from the start that these agents were often incompetent and fraudsters, yet even in 1922 there were absolutely no checks on the 8000 rural Aboriginal accounts. When the government did centralise the bulk of the rural savings accounts in Brisbane in 1933, ostensibly to minimise police fraud, it promptly locked around 80 per cent of these savings – over $12 million today – in investments, and kept the interest bonus for itself. Until the late 1960s only about 20 per cent of their savings was available at any one time for Aboriginal workers. And the files are full of rejections for those who asked for a few dollars from their own money.
In 1904 a trust fund was set up to hold monies owing to, or saved by, missing or deceased workers for distribution to their families; a second trust fund was set up in 1919 by simply taxing all Aboriginal savings for an unemployment relief fund. Internal investigations show both Trust funds were consistently raided for government costs. In the decade from 1925, including the harsh Depression times, the government simply transferred to itself over $930,000 (today) from Aboriginal savings accounts and over $3.5 million from the two Trust funds – money that has never been repaid. Vast sums from Commonwealth child endowment, paid to Aboriginal mothers after 1941, was also transferred into state revenue, by paying only a fraction to settlement mothers and by reducing grants to the missions by the amount of incoming endowment. From 1960, invalid, aged and widows pensions were ‘diverted to revenue’ (their term), bringing a bonanza of over $500,000 (today) in 1960, rising to almost $750,000 by 1964. Meanwhile the people whose lives were intended to be improved by the pensions, struggled and died in poverty.
When Aboriginal people in Queensland finally got control of their lives and their finances in the early 1970s, many found to their horror that their new bank books showed pitiful balances despite decades of work and financial privation. Those who queried head office were told that the records are too inconclusive, and so many files lost or destroyed, that it is impossible to calculate the accuracy of their accounts. This dismissive hypocrisy continues today. At a 1996 Human Rights Commission hearing into the charge by seven Palm Islanders that the Queensland government’s entrenched underpayment of community wages was illegal after passage of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, the government said I could be sued for damages if I presented evidence from their own files to the Commission, evidence that convinced the Commission to find that the government had ‘intentionally, deliberately and knowingly’ underpaid six of the seven claimants. It recommended compensation of $7000 each; the Borbidge Coalition government refused to pay, yet it held record showing amounts due varied between $8500 and $21,000. When legal action was launched in the Federal Court it capitulated.
In 1999 when the Beattie Labor government offered compensation of $7000 to all post-1975 ex-employees, internal files show it had already settled 22 actions out of court, one for $4000 (around one-quarter of the debt showed on government records), and 21 for $7000 (where official estimates of underpayment ranged between $13,000 and $27,000). Fewer than half the potential claimants took the $7000 which depended on them signing away all legal rights to further compensation, even though most had never seen any record of what they might really be owed. In all the government paid out almost $40 million, effectively a $140 million plus profit from underpaying community workers in the decade from 1975. In 2004 it settled out of court two wage claims for $100,000. In 2006, on appeal, several hundred settlements on two former Lutheran communities were paid based on individual records; many received over $20,000, one was four times that much.
In May 2002 Beattie admitted there were 4000 potential litigants waiting to sue the government for the Stolen Wages – that is the wages, savings, child endowment, pensions and inheritances lost during 70 years of government mismanagement. He offered compensation of $55.6 million which he said was ‘generous’, despite admitting my own research indicated around $500 million is in question. This offer was a maximum $4000 per person; thousands of deceased account holders were simply disqualified; and again claimants had to sign away their legal rights. Facing a barrage of public condemnation and a poor uptake of only $20 million, in August 2008 the Bligh Labor government re-opened the scheme and increased the maximum payouts to $7000. In November last year it declared its intention to tip the $20 million still unclaimed into the notoriously misused Aboriginal Welfare Fund for distribution as education scholarships, in blatant contempt of its own survey where over 90 per cent of respondents demanded the whole Stolen Wages allocation be distributed among eligible claimants as promised by the premier in May 2002.
Exploitation of Aboriginal labour, wages, savings and entitlements was not peculiar to Queensland. All state governments, and the commonwealth government in the Northern Territory, ran contract labour systems and banking controls. In 2004 I wanted to generate a National Report with detailed submissions from local experts, but this gradually shrank to my compiling a summary gleaned from other research work, and was published by ANTaR in 2007 as Hard Labour, Stolen Wages (available free online from their website). I think it was early in 2006 that I met Democrat senator Andrew Bartlett at a Stolen Wages strategy meeting and he suggested a Senate Inquiry should look into it nationally. I have to confess I had no real belief it would happen, but after months of persistent lobbying by him the Inquiry was launched in 2007, attracting submissions from around Australia which confirmed the terrible losses suffered by those whose lives and livelihoods were controlled by various governments. Initially the Queensland government scorned the Inquiry, hastily appearing only on the last day. The evidence is damning; its all on the Senate’s website.
Predictably, all governments are in denial. Given the overwhelming evidence of negligence and mismanagement by successive Queensland governments, I have long been convinced that it is the government that should be in the dock and on the defence, not an individual trying to provide cast-iron evidence of fraud on his or her account, evidence which the government may have lost, stolen, or destroyed. I am inspired by the case of Elouise Cobell, an enterprising woman of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana, who brought action against the US government in 1996 for losing and misusing not only the funds of thousands of individual Indian men and women, but much evidence of that maladministration. In 1999 the US courts found in favour of the Cobell claim, which comprises half a million living and deceased claimants and is estimated by the government at potentially $US40 billion. Not surprisingly, Cobell and her co-plaintiffs are still fighting for their money. There is a major hurdle for such a case in Australia. In the US the courts had already declared that, in its stewardship of the enterprises on Indian reserves and management of individual bank accounts, the US government was a legal trustee of those Indian interests with full legal obligations. In Australia, as the many supportive lawyers in our battle informed me, our courts see things differently. In their view, it is the people who empowered the governments to implement their wide-ranging ‘protection’ schemes, and it is not the courts’ role to interfere with how governments carry out this mandate. The lawyers suggest our courts would likely not find our governments are legal trustees of Aboriginal interests. Cases mounted for members of the Stolen Generations bear this out.
But I firmly believe that a Stolen Wages case, based on the wealth of incriminating financial evidence on government files, will prove different. It’s much harder to argue ‘benign intent’ in illegally using private savings, than in removing children from their families. To convince the legal profession and the courts I wrote Trustees on Trial in 2007, analysing national and international cases relating to trust law and fiduciary duties, and applying those legal prohibitions and responsibilities to the negligent and exploitative conduct of successive Queensland administrations. Let me mention a few of the legal duties of a trustee: he must protect the trust property that he controls, he must keep proper records of accounts and provide full information to any beneficiary requesting it, he must not profit from, nor have personal interests which conflict with, the trust. You can see the connections. Loss of records is not a defence; it is a fundamental breach of trust duties.
Two months ago the Queensland Council of Unions launched court action for breach of trust on behalf of a former community worker. I believe there are other actions forming. If I were an Aboriginal woman who had been trapped in this system, I would be hoping that my day in court would not only bring me justice and reparations, but inscribe on the public mind the vital labour of myself and my race in the generation of our national wealth, and our long participation in the national economy.