The fight for the ‘stolen wages’ – for my grandchildren
In 1897 the Queensland government passed a law to take control of all Aboriginal people. Around the state, local police sergeants were named as ‘protectors’. Aboriginal people had to have a written contract to work which the protector organised with the employer. Men, women and children were sent out for twelve months at a time, away from their families. The protectors were supposed to check that people were properly treated and not overworked, and most of people’s wages were paid to the protector to look after for them. This work system continued until around 1970.
During most of that time the government was controlling over 17,000 Aboriginal people, around half of whom were sent to missions and settlements where there was not enough food or housing or medical care. These places were run by white superintendents and people were punished if they challenged the bad conditions; if they escaped they were caught by police and brought back and put in jail.
I wanted to understand what it was like to be controlled by the government, and I wanted to know exactly what the government had been doing, so in 1990 I started reading the thousands of letters written by the men at the Brisbane head office, by the protectors in the country and by the superintendents. I also read reports from auditors who checked what the government was doing with Aboriginal wages. I found out the system of controls was so bad that most people were worse off than if they had been free to live their own lives. I found out that government officials knew the system of controls was not working well but they did not fix the problems. This was particularly true when it came to all the Aboriginal money which was controlled by the government. The money that has gone missing is called the stolen wages, although, as you’ll see, it was not just the wages which were lost.
When we get a job we know just how much we should be paid, and when we have a bank account we get a regular bank statement showing exactly how much goes into our account and how much is taken out of it. But when the government sent Aboriginal people to work it did not tell them how much their wages should be, it did not tell them how much ‘pocket money’ the boss should pay them while they worked, and it never showed them any list of money going in and out of their accounts. It was not until 1969 that people got a bank book, but it showed only what was left in that year.
I discovered that the government was told year after year that the bosses were not paying the pocket money and that many police protectors were cheating people by taking money out of their accounts. I discovered that the government was also taking money from people’s accounts and from the big Aboriginal trust funds and using this money to pay for things which it was supposed to pay for itself, including buildings on the settlements and paying the wages of settlement workers. Mothers were also supposed to get child endowment (like the family allowance) but I discovered the government was keeping a lot of this money even when it knew the children were sick from malnutrition. The government even kept most of the pension which was supposed to be paid to the older people. And many people today say they never got their inheritances, the money which should have passed on to them when their parents died.
All of these things are part of the stolen wages which Aboriginal people are now fighting to get back. They want the government to admit it lost so much of their money, and they want the government to pay proper compensation, just like a bank would have to do if it lost or misused the money of people who trust the bank to look after their savings.
In 2002 the Queensland government admitted it didn’t know how much money might be owing to people whose money was controlled until the late 1960s. The government mentioned that I thought there might be $500 million missing, but it said it would pay only $55 million, which worked out at $4000 for people older than 50 years in 2002, and $2000 for people who were younger than 50 years. Many people have lost more than twenty years of money; they are upset the government thinks their working life is only worth $4000. They are upset that the government refuses to pay any money for their parents and grandparents who may have already died, but who also worked for many many years. And the government says it will only pay people if they promise not to go to court to try and get all their money back. The government refuses to talk about changing the terms of payment.
I knew that if a bank ran such a faulty system and lost and misused the trust funds then people would take the bank to court and the court would say the missing money had to be paid back. It seemed to me that the government had been a banker for Aboriginal money and should be treated the same way. In my new book Trustees on Trial I speak about governments in Canada and the United States that also controlled people’s money and the courts said those governments would be judged by the same rules as a bank. Indian tribes in both those countries have taken their government to court for losing or misusing their money and the government has had to make a payment which the tribes think is fair. In my book I argue that this might happen for the stolen wages in Australia too.
Queensland is not the only state that controlled Aboriginal work and wages for most of the twentieth century. This happened right around Australia, and I have written a National Report to show that the other states also knew workers were being cheated of their money by bosses and by the officials who were supposed to be looking after it. Governments in other states also used the trust funds for their own benefit, and in some cases these governments knew child endowment and pensions were not given to the Aboriginal people.
Now the Senate, which is the highest level of government in Australia, is looking into the matter of stolen wages in every state and the Northern Territory. The Senate Inquiry has received over 100 letters and reports about stolen wages, and last week it held public meetings in Brisbane and Sydney. The Senators were amazed to learn just how bad the system was, how hard life was for people who worked for years but did not get their money, and how hurt people are in Queensland that the government should say their working life is worth only $4000. The Senate Inquiry will write a Report by the 7th December 2006.
Meanwhile the stolen wages fight will continue and people are already talking with lawyers to bring a court case against the government. Another very important part of our fight is to speak on radio and television about the stolen wages to explain that Aboriginal people were most important workers, particularly in the cattle industry, and that the reason so many people are poor today is because someone else took their money and didn’t give it back.
In fighting for their stolen wages, Aboriginal people are only fighting for the money which is theirs, just like any person would do.