Stolen Wages – A National Issue


I would like to acknowledge the Yolngu people and thank them for allowing me to visit this beautiful Gumatj country, and I’d also like to pay my respects to the elders of the many clan groups gathered here for Garma.

My name is Ros Kidd. I am a mother and grandmother from Brisbane, Queensland. I am affiliated with Griffith University Brisbane which has sponsored my visit to the Garma Festival to speak with you today.  Ten years ago I completed my PhD thesis which investigated how Queensland governments controlled the lives and finances of Aboriginal people. I read thousands of church and government files and correspondence and was horrified by what I learned. I have been fighting for justice on this issue ever since.

At present, the Queensland government has around $100 million on the table to avoid legal action by Aboriginal workers and families. The New South Wales government recently said it would pay back all money it owes to Aboriginal workers – this could be as high as $70 million.  Today I want to give you the background for these offers. I’ll look first at Queensland where we have a vast amount of evidence revealing official negligence, frauds and misuse of Aboriginal Trust monies. Then look briefly at whether financial controls in other states might reveal similar negligence and misuse. And close with the current position in our long fight for justice on what we call the Stolen Wages.


Stolen Wages – Queensland

From 1890s-1970 men, women and children were contracted out to work. They had no control over wage rates and no direct access wages and savings which went directly to government agents usually police protectors. From 1919 the government said pastoral workers would get 66% the white wage, but records show that in 1949 workers got only 31%. In fact in every year between 1941-1956 the government sold Aboriginal labour for less than the 66% rate. That is a massive loss of wages over 15 years due to government negligence.

From the early 1900s the government was constantly warned workers were likely to be cheated of their pocket money, the only cash they got while they worked, yet it never fixed the system. Auditors in the mid-1960s said there was no way of knowing whether it was ever properly paid during all those years.  Fraud on Aboriginal savings by police protectors was so common thumbprints were introduced in 1904 and again in 1921. In 1933 bulk savings were centralised in Brisbane specifically to reduce police fraud. Yet in 1941 a Report found there were still no effective checks of police dealings on Aboriginal money. Even in the mid-1960s auditors said there was no way of knowing whether witnessed receipts were in fact authentic.

So there is documented long term failure of government to protect the wage rates, pocket money and savings of the Aboriginal workers it controlled, despite countless warnings that people were being cheated.  Evidence shows the government itself raided Aboriginal monies. It intercepted federally-paid maternity allowances from 1912 and child endowment from 1941, and paid only a fraction through to the mothers.  We now know that in the late 1940s endowment was used for refrigerators in settlement dormitories. In the mid-1950s when infant mortality on government settlements was 6 times higher than in the white community, the government used child endowment for buildings and machinery.

Before they came available in 1960, the government planned how it would intercept old age, invalid and widows pensions; these were partly streamed to consolidated revenue although there was no legal authority to do so. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s child endowment was still merged through the department’s main Trust Fund which covered operational costs of government settlements.  Successive audit reports and internal Reports show several Trust funds built up from Aboriginal savings and deceased estates were commonly and improperly used for items which were the liability of government.

During the depression years 1929-32 almost $5 million (today’s value) was stripped from the Trust funds and never repaid; in the late 1930s the government flouted auditors warnings and continued to appropriate Aboriginal earnings to cover State costs. In 1943 a new Trust Fund, the Aboriginal Welfare Fund, was established, and, according to department directors and auditors it was continually misused by government; in fact an internal Report in 1991 found negligence bordered on criminality. The Welfare Fund was frozen in 1993 and currently has a balance of around $9 million. The true value, however, is likely to be many times that amount.


Stolen Wages – other States

I haven’t accessed primary records from other States, so this summary is gleaned from others who’ve done so, including my colleague Dr Anna Haebich with regard to Western Australia. It seems that in States with smaller Aboriginal populations (New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania), Stolen Wages comprise the wages of children apprenticed to work from missions and Homes, and entitlements such as child endowment. Hundreds of children were processed through institutions and sent to work as cheap labour until the age of 18 or 21, and many say they did not receive their pocket money during the work period, or that final balances were underpaid or unpaid when they were released from State controls. As adults they could claim standard rates of pay and conditions in the general community; in reality they had to take what they could get. There is now evidence that some of the child endowment of mothers on mission stations was kept by the government.  It was only after 1960, in Victoria and New South Wales, that pensioners were directly paid.  The New South Wales government recently admitted, although not publicly, that it withheld money from wages, pensions, endowment and workers’ compensation. In 1930 alone, this government took over $1.3million (today) from mothers’ endowment; till now government policy was to deny it held any Trust monies.

In Western Australia from 1874 any Aboriginal child could be institutionalised and apprenticed to work from age 12 to 21, although after 1886 they were sent out even younger. Between 1915-1920 over 500 people, that is one quarter of the population in southern Western Australia, were deported to missions and stations from where children could be sent out to work. The Welfare Board continued deportations until 1954, and kept guardianship of children until 1963. Supervision of child endowment payments ceased in southern WA by 1950, but ten years later there were still no controls over distribution of child endowment by pastoralists in the north. In the 1970s, the northern missions in WA were still receiving massive bulk child endowment payments. How much of this money actually went to the mothers?

Laws in Western Australia provided for labour contracts from 1886, but these were not compulsory and made no mention of cash wages. The 1905 Aborigines Act made no mention of labour or cash wages due to aggressive lobbying by pastoralists. By 1915 department file cards often included employment details, and part of the wages of younger wards went into Trust accounts, money which most never saw again. Although wages were commonly paid south of the Pilbara from around 1915, in the Kimberleys, which had an Aboriginal labour force of over 2000 in the 1930s, wages there were not fixed by law until 1967. Welfare Board controls over Aboriginal earnings and property continued in Western Australia until 1963.

Development of the Northern Territory was similarly dependent on unpaid Aboriginal labour. Although the 1910 Act allowed for payment of wages into a trust account via the police or the protector, there was no compulsion for cash payment. When the Commonwealth took control in 1910 a new Ordinance stated all wages must be paid in cash, but calls for a minimum wage were dismissed out of hand; in fact many pastoralists paid no cash wages for another 30 years. A Report in 1928 said rations were frequently withheld as punishment and there was much starvation and sickness. In this context it is horrifying to note that pastoralists were still authorised as ration distributors for the Commonwealth until 1966.

Between 1910 and 1957 the Northern Territory chief protector was legal guardian of all Aboriginal children under 18 years; hundreds of children were sent to town compounds and government stations and then apprenticed out.  While apprenticed boys were free from 18 years of age, after 1918 unmarried girls and women were controlled till death; they could be sent to work for no wages and had no rights over their own children.  By the 1930s many workers were still paid in rations or by ‘value’ through the station stores. Most boys on pastoral stations were retained for labour, but girls were commonly exiled to church missions or institutions for employment training. For town-based workers, 40% of the wages went directly to Trust accounts and after 1934 individual bank accounts could be opened for balances greater than ₤2. In 1948 the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission refused an application to bring Aboriginal workers under the pastoral award because it would ‘interfere’ with arrangements between pastoralists and the Northern Territory administration.

Removals of children, now from as young as three months, continued post-war, and from 1953 the director of welfare was guardian of all wards and controlled their property. Cheap labour continued in the pastoral industry into the 1970s.  In the Northern Territory, as in Queensland, department bureaucrats planned how to divert child endowment monies to capital works which were patently state responsibilities; in the Northern Territory endowment went into construction of schools, dormitories and hospital clinics. In 1964, according to investigations by Dr Haebich, social security benefits still provided 40% of mission incomes in the Northern Territory and far exceeded state support to pastoralists acting as ration stations.


The fight for justice

Because we hold so much detailed and incriminating evidence, Queensland leads the way in the fight for justice over Stolen Wages. In 1996 seven workers from Palm Island settlement won a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission case against the government for the deliberate underpayment of wages between 1975-1986. (Underpayment on the basis of race was illegal after enactment of the federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975; after 1986 community councils controlled wage rates). The plaintiffs won compensation of $7000 each. The Beattie Labor government fought and lost several more cases, before offering all community employees from this period $7000, expecting the total to reach $25 million. This offer closed end of last year and cost the government almost $40million. Many workers have rejected the payment because it is conditional on relinquishing all rights to pursue justice through the courts.

Meanwhile the fight for Stolen Wages and entitlements such as child endowment, intensified. By May 2002 the Beattie government had almost 4000 potential litigants lining up against it, and it offered a $55.4 million package to everyone whose finances had been controlled. But this is an insult: it is only $2000 for people between ages 45-49, and $4000 for those aged 50 and over. Yet we know many people worked for 30 or 40 years and got little in their hands due to government ‘management’ of their money. The government refuses to acknowledge any liability for decades of official negligence and misuse. It refuses to extend compensation to families of workers who died before the May 2002 who also suffered financial loss. My estimation is that the government debt to its wards might exceed $500 million. Again, payment is conditional on people forfeiting their legal rights, yet the government will not give everyone the personal records it holds about their wages and banking. We have been advised this demand for indemnity may be illegal in that context. Despite desperate poverty, around 60% of eligible claimants have rejected this pittance.

During 2002 a Stolen Wages Working Group consolidated to mount a public campaign for justice. Unions nationally have taken up the cause, holding workplace meetings, donating to a fighting fund, and running our information in newsletters and websites. 4AAA Indigenous radio which broadcasts nationally, and the National Indigenous Times newspaper out of New South Wales, are major supporters of our campaign.  The Stolen Wages Working Group is working with a range of Brisbane lawyers who have offered to act protector bono for individuals wanting to take legal action for full compensation. Some Under Award Wage cases have been settled out of court at many times the $7000 offered by the government. Given the wealth of incriminating evidence, there is little doubt many Stolen Wage cases could be similarly successful. Class actions are planned.

Nervous of Queensland’s position, a couple of months ago the New South Wales government offered to repay all monies it still holds which belong to Aboriginal workers and mothers. Unlike Queensland, the New South Wales government does not revoke people’s right to pursue justice through the courts. But both governments resolutely refuse to allow a public independent inquiry into their shameful financial dealings.

So how can we expose these dealings to the general public which believes government spin that paying a pittance is an act of generosity in the name of reconciliation? How can we put State governments on trial and win an independent assessment of their liabilities?  Anna has mentioned the Stolen Wages panel and workshops which Griffith University will be hosting in Brisbane in mid-October. This is an enormously important event. We need to charge governments with breaching their duty to the Aboriginal people they forced into their care and control. I will provide evidence such as I’ve mentioned today, Justice Marcus Einfeld will discuss the legal prospects, and Elouise Cobell will speak of the success of the Indian class action in forcing just this level of accountability on the United States government.

But this is much more than an issue of money. This is also about truth in our history. The vast majority of non-indigenous Australians have no idea of the enormous debt they owe to the Aboriginal men, women and children whose labour built this country. They have no idea that many workers would have had money and freedom to prosper if governments had not stifled their choices, ignored unpaid and underpaid labour, and misused their earnings and entitlements.

This historical awakening is the focus of a National Report which I am in the process of organising. For a year we have tried to get funding to cover minimal costs. Unfortunately this is seen as a political issue and we have failed. No matter, we will proceed anyway. We are relying on a core group of volunteers in each state – historians, researchers, lawyers etc – to investigate labour controls and financial management. We are hoping that workers and their families might share their stories with us. We want to put together a national picture – such as we have for Queensland – which we will use as a platform to demand a fully funded independent national inquiry. It is time all Australians knew the truth of their history. It is time all governments faced the magnitude of their debts.

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