ACTU Indigenous Conference


I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this country on which we are meeting today and pay my respects to the elders.  My thanks to the Indigenous Conference committee for inviting me to speak, and to ANTaR National for covering my travel costs.

Today I want to talk to you about the Stolen Wages of Aboriginal workers – a story about the unimaginable perversion of fundamental workers’ rights, which to our shame remains unresolved today.

How would you feel if you worked eight, ten, sixteen hours a day, week in week out, knowing that someone else was taking your money?

How would you feel if you knew you were trapped for a year at a time in this virtual slavery?

How would you feel if this enforced labour separated you from your partner, children, family, parents?  If you knew there was a very real possibility that when you finally returned to your home town your family might have been deported to a government institution or reserve?

This was the reality for thousands of workers around Australia into the 1970s.  In every state for a hundred years these workers were the backbone of rural development.  They are the Aboriginal men, women, and thousands of children, without whose labour regional and remote Australia would never have prospered.  This we know, because it is written on official files.

Yet Aboriginal workers and their families struggled and died in desperate poverty during their working lives and after retirement.  How can this be so?  How can the most intensively marketed labour force end up – even today – without the remuneration which is the fundamental right of all workers?

The answer lies squarely with governments around Australia which revoked Aboriginal rights and took total control of Aboriginal lives.  By simply devising laws and regulations and empowering a network of petty officials across the country to enforce them, they created a malleable resource to do their bidding.  And by cloaking their schemes in the clothing of ‘protection’ and ‘civilising’ they justified this suffocating system to themselves and their constituents.  As so many still do today.

So children, some barely toddlers, were taken from their parents and institutionalised for training as ‘civilised’ members of the workforce.  But government subsidies for this training were a fraction that paid for white children.  And for hundreds of children this training was characterised by physical and sexual abuse, emotional deprivation, educational default.  Aboriginal children were routinely contracted out at a cheaper rate, and, like indentured white child workers, the institutions or government departments took most of their earnings to hold in ‘trust’ for payment on their release at 18 or 21 years, although most received little, if any, of their money.

As legal guardians the States were responsible for the safe working conditions of these wards.  But conditions were rarely inspected, even when, as evidence now clearly shows, authorities knew abuse and exploitation was common.  In the1930s the Queensland government was warned girls were being abused but decided to leave them to their fate rather than forego their wage income and outlay for their upkeep on the reserves.

Thousands of children endured this system – probably over 4000 in New South Wales alone.  In the Northern Territory boys were free after they turned eighteen, but until almost 1960 unmarried girls were trapped for life in a system which could send them to work for no wages and deny them rights to their children.  In Queensland until 1965, the State was guardian for every Aboriginal child and could apprentice them to work.  And it maintained control even of adult workers.  If you escaped from contracted labour to return to your family or seek better work, you were arrested and returned, formerly in chains, later in handcuffs.

This was the infamous ‘protection’ system which – we now know – operated to protect rural industries and expand government coffers.   Millions of dollars which should have been in workers’ pockets was retained by the pastoral industry which employed them for a pittance, if anything.  The Kimberley region of Western Australia rode on the back of over 2000 Aboriginal labourers even in the 1930s, yet wages there were not fixed by law until 1967.  In the Northern Territory many stations paid no cash wages until the 1950s, the Commonwealth government claiming that rations, clothing and shelter off-set the deficit.

This was in fact a mantra common across all States to justify under- or non-payment of wages to Aboriginal workers.  But it was a lie and they knew it.  We know it also, from evidence on their files.  A 1928 Report said rations were commonly withheld as punishment in the Territory causing starvation and sickness, yet pastoralists were still authorised as ration distributors into the 1960s.  Queensland also collected evidence of abuses of basic needs, yet refused to fund inspections by police protectors.  Such evidence confirms knowing and deliberate breaches of duty of care over many decades.

Governments also failed to secure fair wages for their wards.  Year after year Queensland correspondence confirmed that Aboriginal pastoral workers were routinely more highly valued than their white counterparts; they were described as more skilled horsemen, harder workers, more tractable and more loyal – these latter two traits perhaps owed much to coercion and to determination to remain in contact with country.  Yet, through a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with the pastoralists, this labour was supplied at a cut rate of 66% the white wage for fifty years after 1919.  A 1948 decision by the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission reveals the truth – it refused to bring Aboriginal workers under the pastoral award because it would ‘interfere with arrangements’ between the NT government and the industry.  I should add that although workers were covered since 1916 under the Workers Compensation Act  they were again short-changed by governments which not only arranged for ‘fair settlement’ of claims rather than the mandated amount, but also appropriated the payments into Trust accounts.

In cancelling the rights of hundreds of thousands of people, governments around Australia invoked a legal duty of care, a duty which we know they massively failed to honour.  Quantifying this failure is difficult.  How can you put a figure on premeditated entrapment in exploitation, sickness, abuse, starvation, soaring infant mortality, preventable early deaths.  Across generations.  That is beyond me.

What can be quantified to some extent is the financial penalty.  After all, the protection regimes were implemented to produce useful workers, weren’t they?  So you would assume that workers could use their earnings to develop into independent citizens.  That, after all, was the logic.  And we know that governments, in their paternal wisdom, intervened to negotiate labour contracts and to protect the earnings of workers from their own squandering dispositions.

In Queensland alone, government failure to secure the pastoral award for this essential workforce has cost Aboriginal workers around $18 million (today’ value) each year between 1920 and 1968.  Add to this an average of $200 million for the 20 years from 1931 when the department failed to secure even the discounted rate of 66% for these 4500 workers.  Plus the department knew that the pittance supposedly paid to workers, their ‘pocket money’, was commonly rorted; here, over a 50-year period, there is a potential loss of a further $250 million of workers’ entitlements, creamed off into pastoralists’ pockets. In the mid-1960s auditors said there was no way of knowing whether pocket money was ever properly paid.

In addition to these massive wage losses, workers were effectively dispossessed of their savings through government negligence and blatant misappropriation.   Trust monies were lost through failure to combat police fraud and refusal to follow auditors’ directives that workers should see their financial records; seizure of bank interest by the government; seizure of trust monies during the depression and continued improper dealings despite consistent warnings from auditors; sidelining up to 80% of workers’ private savings into revenue-raising investments; misappropriating unemployment levies to maintain reserves and on capital works; failure to distribute monies held from deceased estates; diverting child endowment and pensions to consolidated revenue for department responsibilities and also, on more than one occasion, for capital works; misuse and negligent accounting on the Aboriginal Welfare Fund during its 50-year history.

Early research suggests that other States also amassed and exploited Trust funds from earnings, inheritances, compensation payments, child endowment, maternity allowances, pensions, Army pay and benefits.  Governments hold a legal duty to return Aboriginal monies lost through decades of official negligence and malpractice.  They must also compensate for decades of suffering resulting from their perverted guardianship.

It beggars belief then, that the Beattie Labor government tries to buy its way out of this reprehensible debt with a couple of thousand dollars for those who must promise not to sue for what is rightfully theirs.  It is shameful that the Carr Labor government will pay back only what it says can be identified as owing on remaining files.  Both governments hide behind their failed record-keeping.  Trust us, they say, to tell you what we can find.  Why should we?  Why should governments, which have the most to lose from their incriminating records, be the arbiters of what can and can not be made available to claimants?  In effect, continuing to profit from their own negligent book-keeping?


What can we do?  What can – should – the union movement do?  There is no doubt unions were part of the problem; they commonly rejected Aboriginal workers in order to protect jobs for white members.  But not always.  In Queensland, for instance, it was union activism in the 1970s and 1980s which ultimately forced the government to pay award wages to workers on reserves.  A recent corollary to that has been a $40 million payout for those illegally underpaid after 1975 – although the total wages owing are over $180 million.

We need unions to stand up now; to publicly proclaim solidarity with their colleagues who demand payment of monies earned and owing to themselves and their elders.  We need more of the great work underway in the eastern States to give this struggle prominence through shop floor sessions and website links.  We need unions to demand that Labor governments honour their inherited liability – god knows, they only have to look at conditions in the communities to witness the depth of their debt.  We must force governments to reveal the full truth of their policies and practices; without this knowledge workers are denied their true legal position.  Solidarity with fellow workers should outweigh solidarity with union mates.  If your grandfathers, mothers, aunts, had been ripped off, would you remain inactive?

And I believe we need to take our fight to the courts.  Guardianship of lives and trusteeship of monies entail specific legal responsibilities: you can not exploit trust monies for your own benefit; you can not profit from management of trust monies; you have to fully account for all monies, and keep full records. In fact the patchy record-keeping that governments currently hide behind constitutes a fundamental breach of Trust.  In a very interesting case in the US, a District Court judge recently demanded the government account for every cent taken into Trust since Indian protective trusts were started in 1887.  I’d certainly like to see that here!

And we need to stand firm against those who deny truth in our history.  We need intensive research in all States and Territories to acknowledge the essential part played by Aboriginal workers in the development of our nation.  We need to investigate payments in rations or cash, and trace their progress, along with all other entitlements, through government systems.  We need to proclaim the value of Indigenous labour, the price they paid, the debt still owing.  With a few volunteers in each State we have commenced this task but there is no funding for secretariat needs nor, more crucially, for printing of our final National Report which we hope to launch at the end of 2005.

We don’t want to dwell on the past.  There is little future in peddling guilt.  But we do need to fully understand all our history.  We need to honour all our pioneers.

And I believe we will not come of age as a nation until we pay our debts where they remain outstanding.

Copyright Dr. Rosalind Kidd. Website development by: Ryan-Thomas Robinson