Missing in Action: Industrial Relations and Aboriginal Labour



For most of the 20th century, in any year almost half the Aboriginal population was deliberately excluded from the standard rights and protections of Queensland’s industrial relations framework. Their lives were hostage to the government. This chapter will look at the mismanagement of Aboriginal labour and private bank accounts by government during more than six decades. Issues include the cut- price deal of 1919 that assured pastoralists of an often highly skilled and always essential workforce, and government failure to police the downgraded conditions. The undercutting of the 1966 mandate for equal wages for pastoral workers will be investigated, as well as the illegal underpayment of community workers subsequent to the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, and the role of unions in the government’s 1986 capitulation.



In his 1907 Harvester judgment, Justice Higgins declared that “every Australian” was entitled to a minimum weekly wage sufficient to support a family in health and comfort, including decent shelter, wholesome food, clean water and provision for rainy days. “If we as a nation did not endorse this”, he said, “we could not claim to be a civilised society”. The legal requirements of this benchmark industrial decision protected workers’ basic rights for most of the 20th century. Except if you were female (assumed to be supported by husbands or fathers), or Aboriginal (already ‘protected’ by the Queensland government).

This chapter will consider the outcomes for thousands of Aboriginal workers who were excluded by government decree from the industrial protections mandated for all Queensland workers until 1972 (in the general community) and 1986 (on Aboriginal reserves). It will examine the conditions which prompted the government to take control of Aboriginal people in 1897, including the under-utilised Masters and Servants laws, and the role of Protectors in the government’s employment regime. The government’s entrenched failure during the 20th century to secure either the best interests of workers or the safety of their earnings is canvassed, including strategies implemented to profit the government at workers’ expense and official misappropriation of trust monies. The denial of wage justice during the 1960s and 1970s by both vested interests and government is also explored, as is the illegality of government wage policy relating to workers on its reserves during the 1970s and 1980s. Reparations schemes since the 1990s contrast minimal payments offered with official records revealing true debt.


The 19th century

As European occupation moved across Queensland in the late 19th century, local resistance was subdued through the agency of the Native Police Force whose actions the police commissioner described as so “evil” as to be kept from public knowledge. Estimates of Aboriginal deaths in rural Queensland vary between 5000 and 50,000 in the 60 years to 1900 compared with 400 white deaths in the same period. Police reports acknowledged that much Aboriginal retaliation was acts of revenge “on account of settlers carrying off gins and small boys to be made servants”. In the remote north many settlers would “trade an Aboriginal as they would a horse or bullock”.1

From the earliest days, as European occupation advanced across Queensland, Aboriginal men and women were persuaded or coerced into working with miners, foresters and settlers as they cleared, cultivated and stocked the country. Women washed clothes, scrubbed houses, prepared food and tended children; many were also expert stock workers. Men and boys chopped wood, cleared scrub, felled trees, ploughed and planted paddocks, built fences and stockyards, mustered, branded and slaughtered cattle. By 1886, more than 1000 Aborigines were in permanent work around the colony and double that number by the turn of the century.2 Payment was commonly in cast-off clothes, food scraps, or alcohol or opium drugs – a dependency that ensured a captive, malleable workforce. Over the years, official correspondence shows that much of rural and regional Queensland would not have developed without Aboriginal labour.

Like all employees, Aboriginal workers were subjected to the UK Masters and Servants laws which had extended to colonial Australia with British settlement. These laws defined a range of offences such as failure to start work, absence without permission, misconduct, and loss or damage of employer’s property. Queensland’s 1861 Masters and Servants Act added offences such as lobbying for higher wages, insubordination or breaching moral standards. While breaches by employees were a criminal offence, breaches by employers were a civil matter. Few employers chose to be tied to these conditional contracts for Aboriginal labour. In 1884, a Maryborough employer asked the government to introduce binding work agreements like those regulating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment in the maritime trades in the recent Native Labourers’ Protection Act 1884, in order to stop the poaching of his trained Aboriginal workers on false promises of higher wages. As late as 1914, the Chief Protector lamented that employers thought it “a useless cost of time and trouble” to prosecute “a dissatisfied Aboriginal” under Masters and Servants legislation. This reluctance, he said, was “interpreted by the native as evidence of weakness”.3


The “protection” regime and the role of Protectors 

Stung by the scandalous death rate and the terrible condition of surviving original inhabitants, the government enacted a regime to “protect” Aborigines by controlling all social and employment relations with Europeans. Under the 1897 Aborigines Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act the government established for itself the legal role of Protector and carer of Aboriginal people, a role it maintained into the 1970s. During this time almost any person of Aboriginal descent could be declared a ward of state and exiled permanently to a reserve, losing all personal and public rights. There was no due process or right of appeal. The government controlled where people could live, whom they could marry and guardianship of their children. Operating almost as a closed regime, the Aboriginal department, in its various names, controlled education, housing, health, policing, justice, access to individuals and communities.

During the 20th century the major role of successive department heads was as employment broker and banker of private Aboriginal earnings and accounts. The 1897 Act introduced compulsory 12-month work contracts or “agreements” for Aboriginal workers negotiated by the network of police “Protectors” who nominated the work site and payment, which originally did not have to be in cash. It was not obligatory for Protectors to check work conditions and amenities contrary to claims that servants were brought up as one of the family and extended “the comforts of home” and “considerate treatment” in lieu of cash, it was soon apparent that many girls lived a life of slavery.4 Despite parliamentary protestations that a minimum Aboriginal wage set a dangerous precedent by interfering between employer and labour, the Amendment Act 1901 set a minimum wage of 10 shillings per month for boat workers and half that for workers on the mainland, less than one-eighth the white wage.


Failed control of work and wages

To reduce fraud by station owners claiming earnings had been fully dispensed as rations, Protectors could demand receipt of all wages. From 1903, wages of all female and child workers were paid directly to the Protector except for a small amount of “pocket money”. This arrangement was extended to all male workers from 1914. Wages were banked in the name of each worker with the Protector as trustee. Withdrawals were severely limited and purchases were commonly organised through specified invoices on local stores. Account holders saw no record of dealings on their money and as early as 1904 the government introduced thumb-printing to counter widespread frauds, often through doctored receipts or collusion with local store owners to inflate prices.

In 1907, when the Harvester judgment set the basic unskilled weekly wage at 42 shillings, the Queensland government was contracting 3,000 plus Aboriginal men and women at the 1901 weekly rate of only 15 pence – a mere 3 per cent of the “white” rate! Through the agency of local Protectors the government already held £3,978 of their earnings. A new tax of 20 per cent was imposed on the wages of settlement workers in outside employment, without the knowledge or consent of Aboriginal workers. The Chief Protector conceded in 1908 that many workers were “discontented and upset” that their earnings might be “appropriated by the government” and used to fund the missions.

The only checks of work or living conditions of this contracted workforce were of domestic workers in the Brisbane area. The government disregarded accumulating evidence of work abuses, isolation, and sexual predation. Its supply of young girls for domestic work in remote Queensland included children “rescued” from rural camps. In 1913, Protectors reported girls were put to men’s work, were grossly underpaid and poorly clothed by employers who thought “anything is good enough for a ‘nigger’”. Girls who fell pregnant were confined on the settlements and then either re-contracted with their child at a lower rate or separated from their baby and sent back to work. In 1916 Chief Protector John Bleakley conceded that there were two grave dangers of his “excellent” system. The first was sexual assaults. The second was danger was that employed girls might choose to improve their lives, thus making them “unfit for their only legitimate future”, namely marriage to Aboriginal men. The government’s priorities were exposed in 1934 when a public scandal broke over allegations of high pregnancies among Cherbourg girls contracted to rural work. The Queensland Governor suggested it might be safer to kept keep the girls on the settlement. Bleakley conceded that their “moral welfare” was important but the government would lose financially in terms of lost annual income (over £1,460) and added maintenance on the settlements. The government continued to send girls and women to remote employment into until the early 1970s.

From rural Queensland, Protectors confirmed the pastoral industry’s dependence on Aboriginal labour – they were “more reliable” than most white stockmen; “as good or better”; “know the country better”; and were “superior” stockriders and bushmen. Yet by 1914, denied by decree the right to negotiate monetary value for their labour, many stock workers were hired out at the equivalent today of less than $9 a week. Chief Protector John Bleakley complained this “absurd and unfair” rate caused “great injustice” and hardship to their families. Taking advantage of wartime labour shortages, Bleakley marginally increased the minimum rate, expanded the contracted workforce and took compulsory control of all Aboriginal income. This action raised government holdings of Aboriginal savings more than four-fold to £56,855.

In 1918, ignoring continuing testimonials confirming the crucial value of pastoral workers in remote areas, Bleakley successfully countered initial Australian Workers Union (AWU) demands for equal pay to exclude Aboriginal workers from the McCawley Station Hands’ Award. Bleakley reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” that “reasonable” wages would be paid to pastoral workers.5 Considering “the earning value of white to black”, Bleakley set Aboriginal wages at two-thirds the award rate. Aboriginal sugar workers were not exempted from award wages and subsequently many were sacked. Some were illegally put to cane work while being employed as “house boys” at the discounted departmental rates. Regulations in 1919 for Aboriginal workers introduce pay scales for domestic servants, cooks, scrub cutters, carpenters, and drovers. The highest wages were £3.5.0 for tradesmen and £3 for head stockmen. Adult stockmen got only £2 compared to £3.7.0 for their white counterparts. Pocket money was set at a maximum 50 per cent of wages. Each deposit and withdrawal was to be entered in a special book and checked by Protectors. Aboriginal workers would now be covered by workers compensation. However, successive departmental Annual Reports of the Chief Protector acknowledged the “co-operation” of the Insurance Commissioner and his department in arriving at a “fair settlement”, suggest injuries or deaths of Aboriginal workers were not assessed at standard (white) rates.

The 1919 regulations had set minimum requirements for food, clothing, work hours and shelter. The president of the Arbitration Court had declared himself satisfied with the new standards. Setting standards was one thing; maintaining them another. Multiple reports by Protectors of exploitation, abuses and sub-standard quarters on department files confirm that the government knew its regulations were not enforced. Bleakley admitted in 1921 that shelter for many Aboriginal workers was “worse than they would provide for their pet horse, motor-car or prize cattle”. Yet workers who complained about poor treatment were commonly assaulted for being “cheeky” or threatened with banishment to Palm Island. Any who absconded to escape abuse, sought better paid work, or returned to their families, were hunted down by police and returned to their employer in chains or handcuffs or deported to a settlement. This policy continued INTO the late 1960s.

During the 1929-1932 Depression, Protectors in many areas reported Aboriginal stock workers were ‘indispensable’ compared to the “often useless” untrained white labour available. Yet the department continued its policy of putting pastoral interest above those of “protected” Aboriginal workers by dropping the wages of its 4,500 pastoral workforce to only £1 weekly or just 40 per cent of the award rate. Survival on such a pittance was, as one Protector stated, “just a bare existence”. Another Protector declared that white workers would not endure such hardships and long hours: “[I]t is a well known fact that Aboriginals employed on agreement, work long hours, and with a lot of employers there are no Sundays … very often their day’s work is nearer 16 than 8 hours”. Pastoralists in Mitchell, Windorah, Normanton and Turn Off Lagoons districts all registered a preference for Aboriginal over white labour, yet the government sold this essential workforce at around 40 per cent the award between 1938 and 1940. Wages rose marginally through the 1950s to reach two-thirds in 1957.

Just as it stockpiled continuing evidence of its flawed wages controls, the government also stockpiled evidence of the widespread disregard for regulation working conditions for many of those it was mandated to “protect”. In 1956 the government acknowledged that most Protectors never inspected pastoral conditions and directed industrial inspectors of (white) workers’ accommodation “to ensure fair treatment for the Aboriginal in food and accommodation provided”. The government knew this did not stop the chronic illegal and injurious conditions endured by Aboriginal workers on major pastoral stations. Reports continued to amass in head office from both Protectors and health inspectors of appalling treatment including sexual assaults, wet living quarters, rough handling, assaults with chains, lack of water and cooking facilities, toilet pans emptied in a heap near sleeping sheds and widespread hookworm and ill health, especially among children. While some Protectors were sympathetic, others routinely ignored complaints, labelling them as untrue, unsubstantiated, or merely vindictive. In 1959, opposing the enforced return by police of men contracted from Edward River mission who had absconded from intolerable conditions at Strathburn station, the missionary investigated and described their accommodation:

[T]heir quarters are galvanised iron wall and roof hut with no window opening and only one door opening but no door. The floor is of antbed with no bunks, they sleep on the ground. Their place of eating is evidently a type of leanto with bark roof no walls and no proper table … The men received no pocket money … [only] 2 oz tobacco with 2 packets matches … They were not supplied with blankets, mattress or lighting for night time…

Pastoralists also abused workers’ “ignorance of hours and conditions generally” to overwork them, said the Theodore Protector. In the Burketown district it was common to work Aboriginal stockmen “time and a half” while droving. All this evidence was received and recorded by the authorities who ran this “protection” regime.


“Stolen” wages

The government publicly boasted that its “care and control” of these private accounts saved it “a great deal of expense” in ration subsidies, while workers struggled to survive in abject poverty, trapped in a nightmare of minimal wages and severely restricted access to savings. In 1914, the Chief Protector lobbied unsuccessfully for a 10 per cent tax on the earners of Aboriginal workers, not living on settlements. This would have produced a windfall of £1,000 more than current government outlays on ration relief. He said the tax would teach Aborigines “social responsibility”.

A 5 per cent tax was introduced in 1919 for single wages and 2.5 per cent tax for married workers. Workers were not told of this deduction from their wages. This money went into the new Aboriginal Provident Fund, ostensibly to support sick or unemployed workers. In 1923, however, a public service report6 revealed that the government had stripped large amounts from this fund and an earlier trust fund of unclaimed wages and deceased estates (the Aboriginal Protection of Property Account). The report also revealed that head office did not supervise the 8,000 rural savings accounts where police transactions were so unreliable it urged that workers be given the option of checking dealings on their money. The government did not adopt the recommendation, instead directing Protectors to have all transactions witnessed by a disinterested third party.

Due to the government’s chronic mismanagement of income and savings, much of the discounted wage was lost to those who were forced to labour so hard in terrible conditions. A further report on the department concluded in 1932 that it could be “reasonably assumed” that workers were cheated of their pocket money, now potentially up to 80 per cent of the wage.7 The remaining portion, paid directly to police Protectors, was no safer. The 1932 report found there was no verification of wages earned or of deductions by either employers or Protectors. It found pilfering from the 4,550 accounts was so common, often by simply doctoring receipts over long periods that “the opportunity for fraud existed to a greater extent than with any other Governmental accounts”. The government said it would centralise all rural savings accounts in its main Queensland Aboriginals Account (QAA) in Brisbane ‘to minimise fraud by members of the Police Force who are Protectors’.8 Records show, however, that this was a premeditated strategy to divert into investments £200,000 – or over 80 per cent – of Aboriginal savings in order to create an anticipated annual interest bonus for Treasury of £15,000. Tight restrictions on workers withdrawing money from their own accounts continued, while at the same time, as internal documents show, the government was itself raiding both trust funds and the QAA to supplement consolidated revenue. In the ten years from 1925, around $3.5 million (today) was taken from the trust funds, rendering the deceased estates fund technically insolvent. Additionally, over $900,000 was siphoned from private savings accounts. Yet the Minister denied in parliament that Aboriginal savings were used to cover departmental liabilities stating that the money was taken from “earnings” rather than “savings”. This money has never been repaid.

The government knew workers’ money remained at risk to frauds by Protectors. In 1934 it admitted that most account holders were “illiterate and unable to comprehend the system of recording and investing their funds”. Yet only in 1935 were thumb-print checks mandatory for checking against duplicates at head office. Auditors warned in 1940 that thumb-prints were the “only valuable evidence” to check the legitimacy of transactions on personal accounts and it was “hardly likely” that fraudulent Protectors would provide clear prints. Yet they discovered that many prints received by the department were ‘so carelessly taken’ that they were “useless for verification”, and head office was also way behind on its policy of checking just one-third of the dockets for fraud, making a mockery of the Bleakley’s assertion that it was “not possible” for funds to be misappropriated from savings accounts. Indeed, a 1941 investigation declared he was inefficient and inept: head office records were hopelessly muddled, accounts were not properly kept and no effective checks were in place to limit fraud.9 Bleakley was forced to resign.

Thumb-print authentication passed to the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) from 1942 but audits show that illegal practices continued. The Gregory Downs Protector held cheques on Aboriginal accounts already witnessed even though they had not been signed by account holders. The Mossman Protector had unwitnessed vouchers thumb-printed in advance for goods not yet supplied. In 1943 and 1944 auditors again warned that Protectors were “evidently in the habit” of disregarding witnessing procedures. It now transpired that the department had no database of the thumb-prints of hundreds of workers based on the northern missions and thereby no way of verifying transactions on their accounts. By 1945, the government had sidelined 87 per cent of private savings totalling £287,636 in loans and investments, leaving only £35,736 available to over 4,200 account holders.

The government also authorised the raiding of private accounts of rural workers to subsidise the costs of buildings, fencing and amenities on country reserves. The public mantra that ‘each workers’ savings are definitely his own property and cannot be used for any other purpose but the benefit of the owner himself’ is belied by internal documents from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s showing that money was taken for capital improvements on several reserves in contempt of auditors’ warning that these were “legitimate items to pay from the department’s standing account”. Incoming departmental [?]Director Cornelius O’Leary deplored this “long-standing policy” arguing that workers’ savings accounts were already subject to compulsory deductions towards general “protection” costs and the government was also keeping their bank interest. But the practice continued.

In the late 1940s when the Aboriginal pastoral wage was 30 shillings weekly or less than one-third the white rate, the government surveyed Protectors to determine whether part-payment of pocket money in cash would reduce widespread rorting. Their replies confirmed that the pocket money scheme failed utterly to protect up to 80 per cent of workers’ wages. Describing the scheme as “just a farce”, the Coen Protector argued employers would get workers to thumb-print the cash books but keep the money for themselves. The Burketown Protector said probably 75 per cent of stations would just keep the money. Warning again that local Protectors had no way of verifying transactions, auditors proposed new books be issued annually and old books checked by visiting audit inspectors. The department refused, citing increased printing costs. In the mid 1950s another survey confirmed nothing had changed. The Birdsville Protector said he had never seen a pocket money book. Protectors at Normanton and Urandangie said the system was “futile” and fraud widespread as employers simply concocted figures at the end of the contract period. The Cooktown Protector said most workers were illiterate and had no knowledge of what they signed for and the current “futile” system gave no protection. The Camooweal Protector said many employers in his area kept no books and those that did demanded thumb-print endorsements when no cash or goods had changed hands. He said the system was “absolutely beyond control” and workers were “entirely at the mercy” of employers. O’Leary admitted “that in many instances pocket money is not paid and the Aboriginal thereby deprived of portion of his earnings”. In fact no head office checks were ever made into the rorts that they had known were widespread since the turn of the century. In the mid-1960s auditors still protested that the department “appears to exercise no direct supervision over the keeping of these books or of the payment of pocket money by employers”.


Employer associations and unions

The government held the authority to set minimum wage levels to reflect the value of Aboriginal labour. It held an obligation to act in the best interests of the controlled Aboriginals unwillingly dependent upon it. It patently failed these legal obligations. In 1957 the department’s rural inspector reported that many pastoralists were entirely dependent on Aboriginal labour, that Aboriginal pastoral workers were not paid in terms of the real worth”, that many white stockmen refused to work in remote areas, and “white men of markedly less ability and industry” had higher wages and better living conditions “than Aboriginals who are better workmen”. The government announced a rise in 1957 in Aboriginal wages to £10 to reflect recent award increases, but the United Graziers’ Association (UGA) promptly threatened mass sackings alleging “man for man they do not compare with experienced white stockmen”. At a conference convened between government and UGA,10 the pastoralists also claimed they supported stock workers’ families, but the Director O’Leary pointed out that wives already had to do at least 12 hours unpaid work weekly and subsidies could be claimed for child support. The prevalence of continuing child labour in the industry was confirmed by UGA personnel, although they blamed smaller pastoral operators. Conceding the “fair amount” of child labour and the frequency of injuries and broken limbs, O’Leary merely suggested that “undersized and weedy” children not be put to hard labour. “We try to look on these people as human beings”, he said. After much discussion the government backed down from the announced rate, reducing the weekly wage to £8.10.0, just 67 per cent of the award.

The UGA was consulted in 1961 when the 10 rate [please clarify] was reviewed. It agreed not to challenge the increase if the government dropped a proposal to tie further increases to the basic wage. The government complied and this capitulation was described as a 2 million pound gift to the pastoral industry by Joe McGuinness of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League. When the rates were gazetted, the UGA protested it had not been informed of parallel increases in allowances. Once again the government backed down and did not increase allowance. Although they kept the weekly wage increase, the government allowed pastoralist to pay Aboriginal workers at a reduced hourly rate. This resulted in a reduction in Aboriginal wages by up to 50 per cent in some cases. Publicly denying that the UGA had forced the department’s hand “contrary to the interests of the Aboriginals”, O’Leary claimed the new rates had “resulted in improved conditions”. The Trades and Labour Council (TLC) described the reductions as “scandalous” and “inconsistent with public utterances” about assisting Aboriginal people towards assimilation, arguing that under the new rates Aboriginal station workers continued to be “shockingly exploited”. In a letter to the new Minister, Dr Henry Noble, the TLC protested that the government refused to consider trade union views on the issue yet it consulted with the UGA over work and conditions, and “very quickly wilted” under pressure from the UGA and wealthy graziers who have for many years ruthlessly exploited the Aboriginal people”. Noble drafted a Cabinet submission acknowledging that the Aboriginal worker was “competent and skilled” and “has in reality been one of the mainstays of these industries”, but his suggestion that station workers be brought under the main award was vetoed, possibly because the UGA had raised the sore point of the low wages paid by the department to stockmen on its Aboriginal reserves.

In 1964 the TLC again lobbied for equal pay and conditions for Aboriginal pastoral workers, arguing that discrimination was further exacerbated by provisions such as (a) “active/non-active” (under which wages of men over 45 could be reduced almost 40 per cent), and (b) “slow workers” (where lower wages were set with AWU consent), (c) a capacity determined between employer and Protector and “agreed to” by the worker, most of whom had no knowledge of what they were signing and feared losing their job and deportation to Palm Island if they refused. Suggestions that an industrial magistrate be empowered to judge diminished capacity were opposed by the UGA, which argued magistrates were ignorant of Aboriginal capabilities, bookwork would be too complicated, and problems would arise under the Workers’ Accommodation Act year? which stipulated separate eating and sleeping areas for Aboriginal labour. In spite of decades of evidence to the contrary, the UGA also insisted “practically all Aboriginals are definitely restricted workers” in the slow worker category not because they lacked skills but because they lacked “mental capacity to cope with certain situations”. When the AWU joined the call for equal wages and conditions in December 1964, the government decided, given “the world-wide attention focused on racial discrimination”, that it would not be politically expedient to oppose the concept and agreed that industrial magistrates, rather than the AWU, determine any incapacity. However, no action was taken pending a proposed new Aboriginal Affairs Bill in 1965, leading the TLC to deplore the long delay which froze wage increases and prolonged the “extremely bad conditions” suffered by Aboriginal station workers. During debates on the Bill, the UGA continued to lobby for a “minimum disturbance” to Aboriginal employment. Regulations under the Aboriginal Affairs Act 1965 gazetted in April 1966 continued the practice of negotiating partial payments for Aboriginal workers. Although the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission had by then handed down its “equal pay” judgment, Queensland was confident its underpayment policy could continue. Prime Minister Robert Menzies had confidentially assured Premier Frank Nicklin that equal pay would only apply to “‘former wards” that controlled workers would be termed “trainees” and the “slow worker” clause would remain. The new award regime would not apply until December 1968.

Only after the 1965 Act could Aboriginal Queenslanders formally request permission to see a bank book detailing transactions on their accounts; many found only a pittance left after a lifetime’s work. It was not until after 1972 that they were finally free of the government’s compulsory employment regime; finally free to manage their working lives, and their finances.


Breaking State and federal law

It was not until 1968 that the Queensland government formalised cash wages to the 5,000 people confined on the eight Aboriginal reserves (including four former missions). These controlled communities were largely built and maintained by Aboriginal labour, including teachers, nurses, cooks, cleaners, dressmakers, road builders, stockmen, fencers, farmers, timber millers, house builders, heavy machinery drivers, and plumbers. Their only return was starvation rations and substandard conditions, apart from token cash payments to a few key workers. The newly designated “training wage” was less than half the State’s minimum rate and only 30 per cent of the award. Less than half the pay was cash with the remainder withheld as “value” for amenities provided on these deprived communities. Builders got between $7 and $14 weekly compared with the award of $40 for carpenters. The TLC described these rates as “virtually robbery”, especially since many skilled men had worked decades in their trades and were paid full rates when working off the community.

Despite introducing cash wages, the government refused to provide the resources to pay all the workers. This deliberate under-funding of wages resulted in mass sackings that further compromised housing and amenities. Several managers protested that families were worse off than under the ration system, a charge confirmed by medical surveys that identified substandard living conditions as the source of “massive infection loads” and the prime cause of the scandalous toll of infant deaths from gastroenteritis and pneumonia.11

Only after 1972 did the Queensland government finally mandate award wages for Aboriginal workers, excluding workers on its reserves. Here a “training allowance” was set at less than 58 per cent the basic wage. Many families could not even afford the grossly subsidised rental on new Commonwealth-funded houses. In 1974, when Palm Island machine operators were paid only one-third the award rate, the government calculated a budget saving of $1.58 million compared with the State’s guaranteed minimum wage. The Queensland government simply ignored the federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA) and continued to underpay its Aboriginal employees. Under intense federal pressure to comply, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen threatened in 1978 that if federal funds were not provided to cover the expense he would sack 850 workers causing “massive social problems” and leaving the Commonwealth with a $9.5 million social security bill.12 In that year alone the government calculated it was underpaying its Aboriginal employees by $3.6 million relative to the State’s minimum wage and $6.85 million compared to award wages. Its hardline refusal to budget for grudging increases devastated community workforces which fell from 2,500 in 1976 to only 1,463 in 1979, and departmental Director Patrick Killoran warned that further retrenchments would jeopardise essential services. Ignoring evidence that 46 people were now dependent on each wage-earner at Yarrabah, 61 at Weipa and 99 at Palm Island, Killoran obtained changes to the State’s Audit Act so he could redirect personal social security cheques to cover outstanding rents.

In 1979 Yarrabah labourer Arnold Murgha, under AWU auspices, sued for wages owing in the industrial commission. The government described this action as a conspiracy between Aboriginal and Islander Legal Aid Service and federal Labor politicians linked to the AWU. The government argued reserves were “special areas” under the RDA, that Murgha was not an employee of the government, that the jobs were community work rather than employment, and that the State’s Aboriginal Acts excluded provisions of its Industrial Acts. The government did not contest the issue of skill levels. Legal advice to the government from both Senior Counsel and the Crown Solicitor confirmed that award rates were “relevant and binding” on Aboriginal communities and that the government had “a liability to pay the award rate of wages irrespective of how or where that liability is enforced”. The industrial court ultimately ruled the government had no legal right to refuse award wages to community employees.

The State settled the Murgha case for the small sum of outstanding wages. When Killoran discovered a Yarrabah councillor was canvassing union membership, he threatened to sack workers who applied for award wages and to counter any strike moves he threatened to revoke State grants for essential services at Yarrabah. He was forced by the industrial court to reinstate the men pending a detailed departmental report into how award wages would be achieved. In 1980, when wages were still only 72 per cent of the State’s guaranteed minimum or 52 per cent of award rates, the Queensland cabinet agreed in principle that wages be increased to the State’s minimum level. At this time the annual under-payment of Aboriginal community workers was $6.6 million relative to award wage rates. In 1982, under the auspices of the Queensland Nurses Union (QNU), two Cherbourg nurses sued for award wages. Internal advice to the government by both the Solicitor- General and Senior Counsel again confirmed the legal obligation to pay award rates. Acknowledging its Aboriginal wages policy was in breach of the RDA and its own State industrial laws, Cabinet declared in 1982 it would “pursue the objective” of award wages. However, it again refused to fund the wage increases. The community workforce was reduced to 1,082 employees, building and maintenance stalled and average occupation rates grew to over 14 people per home. Many homes were condemned as unsafe. In 1983, wages for Aboriginal workers on reserves finally reached parity with the State’s mandatory minimum.

In October 1983 and again in August 1984 Cabinet acknowledged the illegality of its underpayment and again refused to budget for wage rises. The Community Services (Aborigines) Act 1984 flagged the transfer of local government functions to Aboriginal councils which immediately declared they would abide by legal wage rates, despite Killoran demanding they retain the existing “guaranteed incomes policy”. By 1986, community wages were only 72 per cent award levels and the workforce was down to only 901. Housing, amenities and services were precarious. Facing a raft of legal challenges backed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Union, Transport Workers Union, the QNU and the AWU, Minister Bob Katter Junior told Cabinet that the government was “in a position of extreme vulnerability”. The Solicitor-General and the Ministers for Justice and Industrial Affairs all agreed union-backed actions were likely to succeed. Cabinet finally agreed in March 1986 to implement award levels, seeing this as the cheaper option. Again, the government refused to fund the policy. As councils took control of their communities during 1986 and 1987 their budgets did not cover award rates, forcing further retrenchments. From 1975, when the RDA was enacted, to 1986, the underpayment of Aboriginal workers, relative to award wages, was over $66 million. These monies were effectively stolen by government from the very people it was mandated to “protect”.


Fighting for the “Stolen Wages”

It was in 1986 that seven Palm Island workers began discussions with the Human Rights Commission (subsequently the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC)) regarding suing for unpaid wages. After a long delay, HREOC found in 1996 that the Queensland government had “intentionally, deliberately and knowingly” underpaid six of the workers and recommended compensation of $7,000 each.13 Government records show the amounts owing varied between $8,500 and $21,000. Nonetheless, the government refused to abide by the HREOC decision and only capitulated after action commenced in the Federal Court in early 1997. In 1999, the Beattie Labor Government launched a $25 million scheme offering $7,000 compensation to all Aboriginal employees of the government between 1975 and 1986. Records show the government had already settled 22 actions out of court, one for $4,000 (around one-quarter of the debt shown on department records) and 21 for $7,000 (where department estimates of underpayment ranged between $13,000 and $27,000). Fewer than half the estimated eligible claimants – around 5,700 – accepted Beattie’s Under Award Wage payout which incorporated the relinquishment of all legal rights. The final payout of almost $40 million equated to a $140 million profit to the government for the decade from 1975.

In 2002, after detailed public exposure of the gross financial mismanagement of Aboriginal wages, savings and entitlements (child endowment, pensions, estates) some 4,000 Aboriginals expressed interest in suing for lost wage. The Beattie government offered payments of a maximum $4,000 as full settlement of moneys lost to families during 70 years of government control – the “Stolen Wages”.14 He conceded my estimate that perhaps $500 million had been lost but declared his “generous” offer of $55.6 million was about “rectifying the wrong … in a fair and balanced way”. The government demanded claimants sign away their legal rights knowing few had any evidence of dealings on their accounts and thus of the amounts owing to them. Facing a barrage of public condemnation and a poor uptake of only $20 million, in August 2008 the government re-opened the scheme and increased the maximum payouts to $7,000. In November it declared its intention to tip the unclaimed portion into the notorious Aboriginal Welfare Fund for distribution as education scholarships, despite its own survey revealing over 90 per cent of Aboriginal Queenslanders thought the whole Stolen Wages allocation should be distributed among eligible claimants as promised by the Premier in May 2002.



It is now more than a century since the Harvester judgment of 190715 affirmed that “every Australian” was entitled to a minimum weekly wage sufficient to support a family in health and comfort, and decent shelter, wholesome food, clean water and provision for rainy days. This brief summary of the Queensland government’s consistent denial of these basic industrial rights shows how it exploited its draconian powers over Aboriginal lives to advantage itself politically and economically, at terrible cost to those it was supposed to “protect”. In this shameful role, which it “intentionally, deliberately and knowingly” continued for 70 years, the Queensland government could not “claim to be a civilised society”.

It seems the only path to justice for those who endured decades of government controls and financial mismanagement will be through the courts. History has shown it is only the threat of imminent litigation that will force the government into just redress of its social and financial liabilities. Through Queensland’s Public Interest Legal Clearing House the legal profession is offering pro bono assistance. The union movement, through ACTU president Sharan Burrow and the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU) have both declared their “110 per cent” support for workers’ rights to just reparations for Stolen Wages. The fight for justice continues, promised QCU’s Indigenous Industrial Officer, “because, win or lose, we know we are right to expect wage justice in this country”.16


End notes

1   Queensland Police Department, Annual Report 1871, Burke District.

2   May, D, 1983, From Bush to Station: Aboriginal labour in the North Queensland pastoral industry 1861-1897, JCU James Cook University, Townsville, p 161.

3   Office of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, Annual Report 1913, p 8. There were an estimated 160,000 prosecutions in New South Wales under Masters and Servants legislation between 1845 and 1930, and a further 30,000 to 1963.

4   Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals, 1900.

5   Correspondence from Director of Native Affairs to Under Secretary, 22 November 1943 (Queensland State Archives (QSA) SRS 505-1 Box).

6   Report on the Office of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals (DAIA RK:11).

7   Report on the Chief Protector’s Office (QSA A/58856).

8   QSA, TR1227:129, 14 November 1933.

9   Investigation into the Sub-department of Native Affairs, QSA A/4291.

10   QSA TR1227: 258 

11   Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Annual Report, 1970 

12  QSA A/69705 2.5.78.

13   Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, Decision No H95/74-80.

14   Queensland Parliamentary Debates, 16 May 2002.

15   Ex parte HV McKay (Harvester Case) 1907 2 CAR 1.

16   Queensland Council of Unions, 2008, Stolen Wages Update, QCU, Brisbane, September.


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