Slave labour in the ‘lucky country’
On May 1 1886, national strikes in the United States and Canada demanded an eight-hour working day. Five years later over 1300 striking shearers marched in Barcaldine in central Queensland in the first Australian May Day march. Australian workers won the right in 1907 to a minimum basic wage sufficient to keep a man, his wife, and two children.
During the 20th century, workers won continued improvements to their wages and conditions, including in the pastoral industry. Yet one group of pastoral workers, despite being described continuously in official documents as essential to the survival of the industry in rural Australia, were kept in conditions of virtual servitude and abject poverty. These were the Aboriginal men and women who, in their thousands, provided the unpaid and underpaid labour upon which pastoral profits depended.
Their conditions, again to quote officials in various states and the Northern Territory, were analogous to slavery. Physical abuse, starvation, sickness, injury and overwork were constantly charted on official files. In the 1920s Queensland officials said many pastoralists provided better amenities for pet horses than for Aboriginal workers. In the 1930s South Australian officials wrote of the practice of ‘breaking in’ Aboriginal workers like ‘taming wild animals’. In 1940 Western Australian officials conceded the shortage of Aboriginal labour was due to widespread injuring and maiming of workers.
In the Northern Territory and Western Australia women, children and the elderly were all forced to work for their rations which were commonly so meagre malnutrition was said to by ‘destroying the race’. In these two jurisdictions many workers received no cash wage at all until the 1960s. In Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory workers who deserted this regime during the 20th century were hunted by police and brought back in chains.
In Queensland, where Aboriginal workers were often described as more skilled than their white counterparts, the duplicity of a two-thirds wage parity struck in 1919 deteriorated to outright robbery in some years as the government indentured Aboriginal men and women at rates as low as 30 per cent of the white rate. Mandated minimal conditions counted for nothing given the lack of systematic inspections to enforce them. Exploitation of this captive labour force fractured families as men and women were contracted out to remote stations for 51 weeks a year, a system that continued in Queensland into the late 1960s.
The pastoralists profited from cut-price labour and the Queensland government profited by taking direct control of up to 80 per cent of the wage through their agents, the police protectors. Large amounts of these private earnings were lost or stolen under the government’s watch, despite countless warnings from auditors and public service inspectors. For more than 40 years after 1933 most of these private earnings were sidelined in investments to increase government profit. Meanwhile workers and their families struggled, and died, in poverty.
For much of the twentieth century overnments around Australia assumed the power to seize Aboriginal earnings and control Aboriginal spending. They also intercepted child endowment, inheritances, workers’ compensation and pensions. The Queensland government planned in advance how pensions would be ‘diverted to revenue’; in the Kimberley it was reported both pastoralists and missions were ‘making a quid out of pensioners’; in the NT it was reported pensions were being paid out as station wages. How many millions of dollars of these basic entitlements, intended for those in most desperate need, were creamed off into the pockets of state and territory governments?
The enormous dimension of these ‘Stolen Wages’ is measurable in the continuing entrenched poverty and despair of the workers and their descendants across the country who were trapped in the obscenity of these systems. Yet until 2015, no government in Australia was ever held accountable for these multiple and entrenched abuses of their trusteeship of workers’ money. Described as the largest human rights class action in Australia, over 10,000 former workers in Queensland had to fight through the courts to win a settlement in 2019 of $190 million. This is but a fraction of the earnings, savings, pensions and child endowment which disappeared from Aboriginal accounts under mandatory government control.
Where is the national outcry over these blatant abuses which continued through much of the twentieth century?
When will we as a nation fully acknowledge the critical role of thousands upon thousands of enslaved Aboriginal men, women and child workers whose forced labour for over a century created and sustained what so many of us glibly refer to as the ‘lucky country’?