History of the stolen wages
From 1904 to 1972 the wages and savings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers were forcibly controlled by the state. These workers, some as young as 10 when they started, were denied the basic entitlements all workers take for granted. Workers were not paid their wages, paid more tax than other Queenslanders and were denied the right to use their savings as they saw fit. For some, this system was imposed for over a decade of employment.
Worse still, successive Queensland governments allowed, through neglect and indifference, for wages not diverted by legislative control to be stolen. Researchers estimate that the total amount withheld was nearly $500 million.
An apology plus reparations
In 2002, after aggrieved workers commenced litigation against the state, the Beattie Labor Government made an offer of $55.4 million. This was to paid as reparations for the stolen wages and included initial payments of $4000 or $2000 to eligible claimants. Beattie also promised a written apology and a parliamentary acknowledgement to recognise the injustices perpetrated.
When announcing the reparations, Premier Beattie acknowledged that the $55.4 million offered was significantly less than was stolen. However, he asked the indigenous community to accept the offer and move on in the spirit of reconciliation. The indigenous community relied on the government’s promise of $55.4 million and did as the Premier asked.
Stolen wages stolen again
The process adopted by the government for claims created difficult and unnecessary barriers and excluded many workers with genuine claims. This meant that only $20 million was distributed to workers since 2002.
Instead of distributing the remaining $35.8 million to the workers in accordance with the original promise, the government has decided to make a series of smaller second round payments totalling $14.6 million. The remaining $21.1 million will be quarantined into the newly created Indigenous Queenslanders Fund.
Whilst the QCU commends the government’s commitment to education, it believes that the Indigenous Queenslanders Fund should not be established with workers money. The decision to divert the balance of the money set aside for wages reparations into a fund perpetuates the original injustice suffered by indigenous workers and denies them the closure that Peter Beattie spoke of in 2002.
The QCU campaign – legal proeedings commence
The QCU is determined to achieve wage justice for these workers. On 19 August 2009 litigation commenced in the District Court with proceedings underway on behalf of Uncle Conrad Yeatman from Yarrabah.
Uncle Conrad, a former carpenter and labourer, had his wages withheld from him since he began work at 14. His story is one of hundreds the QCU has heard in its travels around indigenous communities. As happened with many Aboriginal workers, Uncle Conrad refused the offer of compensation as he knew that what the government was offering was inadequate.