Sunday, June 03, 2007

Stolen Wages taskforce a win for WA Aboriginals

Stolen Wages taskforce a win for WA Aboriginals

May 31, 2007 - The WA Government has announced that it will establish a taskforce to investigate wages and Commonwealth benefits stolen from Aboriginal people. In some cases, up to 75 per cent of their income was held in Government managed trust funds but never repaid. Brian Wyatt from the Goldfields Land and Sea Council says the compensation owed to Indigenous workers in the Goldfields alone could be up to $150 million...

The announcement coincided with the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that changed the Commonwealth Constitution to allow the Commonwealth Parliament to make special laws regarding indigenous people and enable indigenous people to be included in the national census.

The term 'stolen wages' refers to entitlements and other moneys that should have been paid to indigenous workers but were not. Regulations allowed the Government of the day to hold in trust up to 75 per cent of an indigenous person's wages. There is evidence that some of the workers did not receive their full entitlements.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert welcomed the announcement having pushed hard for the state to act on the findings of a Senate inquiry: "The West Australian economy was built on the back of the unpaid and under-paid labour of our Aboriginal people," Senator Siewert said. "They were systematically excluded from the benefits of the wealth they created."

"The Senate inquiry found ample evidence of monies being withheld, monies diverted in WA to missions and station coffers, and widespread rorting of trust funds by trustees," said Senator Siewert.

But there is concerned by the announced timeframe as many of the people affected are now elderly and another year of delay will see more of them passing away before justice is achieved.

Brian Wyatt from the Goldfields Land and Sea Council says justice must be done for the people who suffered. "Indications are that the annual indigenous payroll for Goldfields pastoral properties in the 1960s was in the order of $9 million, said Mr Wyatt.

"There were curfews in towns, you know. You had to be out of town by six o'clock, you had to live on designated areas outside of towns and, on top of that, you worked for next to nothing, particularly in the pastoral industry. So it was very, very demeaning I would have thought," he said. "At one mission, in return for a ten shilling a week government accommodation subsidy, Aboriginal people were provided bush shelters and tents with no toilet facilities, and were expected to hunt their own food."

Indigenous Affairs Minister Michelle Roberts said the task force would investigate and make recommendations to try and correct some of the injustices of the past. Mrs Roberts said many of the people affected were likely to have died and a broad repayment scheme, potentially encompassing the families of deceased workers.

The NSW Government set up a trust fund scheme in 2005 to repay wages which were lost between 1900 and 1968 to living claimants and their descendants. In Queensland, Aboriginal people lodged a multi-milliondollar claim for lost wages and entitlements in 2002 and the Government set up a $55.5 million fund which capped claims at $4000 a person.

Mrs Roberts said stolen wages remained an issue for indigenous people. “This is not a report we would be setting up unless we were prepared to take some action and prepared to extend some money at the end of the process,” she said.

Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Dennis Eggington said the inquiry was overdue and the Government needed to provide meaningful relief by acting on its findings.


Recommendation 4 of the Senate Unfinished business inquiry

The committee recommends that:
(a) the Western Australian Government:
(i) urgently consult with Indigenous people in relation to the stolen wages issue; and
(ii) establish a compensation scheme in relation to withholding, underpayment and non-payment of Indigenous wages and welfare entitlements using the New South Wales scheme as a model, and
(b) the Commonwealth Government conduct preliminary research of its archival material in relation to the stolen wages issues in Western Australia.


Greens Media
GLSC Media
Inquiry into Stolen Wages - Senate
Sunday Times
The West

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