Pay up now! Stolen wages campaign demands full compensation for fleeced Indigenous workers

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Fred Edwards is 64 years old with a heart condition, asthma and diabetes. Yet, as a former stockman from northern Queensland’s Gulf Country, he has to get back in the saddle in order to pay off his car loan before he can retire. Descendants of Elliott Bennett, who died in 1981, are suing the Queensland Government for the $18 million he had earned as a national boxing champion, but never received. He died in poverty from pneumonia, aged 57. Early this year, 60 year-old activist and artist Gloria Beckett was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had to accept the State Government’s offer of $4,000 for the years she had worked as a domestic servant so that she could pay for her funeral. She died in May.

They were part of Queensland’s large Aboriginal workforce, whose pay packets never reached their hands. From 1897 until 1972, the State Government had the power to declare Aborigines as wards of the State and therefore take control of their lives, including their earnings and their children. Half the population was locked up on reserves, and most of the rest were forced into contracted employment by the government, which then took their wages and savings. Until 1968, Aboriginal pastoral workers earned 66% of the pay of their white counterparts. People on the reserves worked for rations and shelter.

On top of their dispossession at the hands of British invaders over 200 years ago, this systemic robbery became another form of genocide. Medical surveys in the 1960s named malnutrition as the chief cause of childhood deaths on the missions and settlements: 50% of children under three and 85% under four. Half of all neonatal deaths and 47% of all deaths under sixteen were from gastroenteritis and/or pneumonia. Inadequate food rations, unsafe drinking water and substandard housing accounted for more deaths.

In the 1970s, Palm Island had 165 homes for 1,300 people — few with refrigerators, cupboards or beds. Healthcare was a scandal. While the people of Palm Island lived in these conditions, the government held just under $8 million of their private savings — investing almost $6 million and keeping the interest. This was at a time when a skilled white tradesperson earned about $50 per week. In today’s terms, the government had sequestered in excess of $120 million!

Resistance grows. Even though forced detention on reserves ended in 1971 and government control over wages in 1972, Indigenous workers were still paid only three-quarters of award wages. In the mid-1980s, Palm Island took an Equal Pay case to the Human Rights Commission, forcing the Queensland Government to hand over control of Aboriginal communities to Aboriginal councils. However they were too under-funded to be in a position to pay award wages. A 20-year-long grassroots campaign ensued, culminating in 2000 with a claim against the government for stolen wages, misused trust funds and unpaid child endowment, workers’ compensation and deceased estates.

In 2002, Premier Peter Beattie finally made a contemptible “offer” in the form of an ultimatum. He said that the government would pay a mere $55 million: $4,000 to those who were born before December 31, 1951 and $2,000 to those born after, who are still alive.  There is no offer for dependants, nor any proposal to contribute to the estates of deceased workers. 

To accept, a recipient has to sign away all rights to further legal action. Twisting the knife,  Beattie said: “If people slam the door in the face of the Government, then that is their decision. This is a democracy. People have the right to choose, but if they choose to go down the legal course, it will waste millions of dollars and many people will never see this money. They will die before the matter is resolved in the courts.” This was the “choice” open to Gloria Beckett.

Beattie’s proposal also includes a separate stash of $9 million, known as the Welfare Fund — made up of taxes that Aboriginal people had to pay on their wages and savings. This money will pay for educating Queenslanders about Aboriginal history and culture — such as teaching aids for schools, or road signs throughout the state to inform people whose traditional country they’re travelling through!

Spreading the struggle. Australia-Asia Worker Links, an international trade union solidarity organisation, recently sponsored the Melbourne speaking tour of Alfred Lacey, Deputy Chairperson of the Palm Island Aboriginal Coordinating Council. Over the week of May Day celebrations, Lacey spoke to an anti-globalisation protest, a rally defending Victorian Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union secretary Martin Kingham against a royal commission frameup, Victorian Trades Hall Council and other events. His message was that the Stolen Wages is not a “Black issue.” At an AAWL public meeting he said: “This is a national workers’ issue. The wealth of the State and the pastoral industry can be measured by the poverty of those who were forced to labour for financial security which Australians other than themselves now enjoy.”

Lacey demolished the racist myth underpinning Beattie’s offer — that Aboriginal people live on government handouts. He said: “We worked in our thousands. We helped make this country what it is today. But they took our money and our security for that, and then they blamed us for our poverty.” As for the Welfare Fund, “If they want to put signs up on roads, they should use the Department of Transport’s dollars to do that, not our money.”

Where else but Queensland? Name a State!  Queensland is often referred to as Australia’s Deep North. It’s a reference to the United States’ Deep South, a place full of “red necks.” Both are wrongfully portrayed as unique — as though reactionary ideology, including institutionalised racism, comes from a particular region and not the political system itself. The Stolen Wages campaign is crossing state borders, and Queensland’s Aboriginal workers are leading the way. A plan is in place for a national team of investigators to research the stolen wages in all states and territories.

I had the chance to sit down and talk to Alfred Lacey while he was in Melbourne. I asked him about young people stepping forward, building a broad coalition and the role that women have played in the campaign. This is what he said:

“A couple of older people said to me: ‘We’re tired and old, and it’s time for you younger mob to come through.’ It’s up to young men and women to push this issue. Regardless of how the campaign is headed, we have an obligation to our old people. We need to set the record straight. They looked after us and put us where we are in our community. They played a big role in rearing us and making sure that when they fought the system, we’ve benefited from the fruits of that labour. We are saying ‘thank you’ but in a bigger way. We’ll continue to lead the push.

“There has been a shift in the campaign in regard to getting young people more involved. We would have owned business or cattle properties or lived in the centre of Melbourne in a nice big apartment if these things didn’t happen. For us it’s even a bigger struggle. Young people in the community struggle just to have a normal job, because of the economic status of our communities which is based on welfare.

“We need to form a coalition among ourselves — like the union or collective movement in Victoria which comes together in strength. An elder said to me once, ‘When we go into the bush we get a lot of twigs and tie them up, and you can’t break them.’ The Victorian union movement reminded me of this, when it comes together to fight on one issue, regardless of background or particular views. It’s that kind of coalition that we need to build in Queensland, where we bring together people living in Brisbane and right up in the north, where people are very far apart. A strong coalition made the Queensland Government start shaking. The collective of young people, who know what happened to our elders, can upset the apple cart.

“My involvement came particularly from older women in my community. Our mums are very important. They had to leave their children to wash the sheets, make the beds, polish the floors and wash the dishes for someone else’s kids. They come to the community meetings and watch, and they say: ‘What about this issue. And you tell them about that issue. You make sure it gets driven home. You keep on telling them. You’ve got our support all the way! We couldn’t talk up back then. We’d get punished. We were put on missions and reserves, so you talk up for us!’ Like the stockmen who kept the stations going, our mothers did the hard yards in the houses. In the dormitories on Palm Island, the older girls, whether they were bloodline or not, looked after the younger ones. They became the mums. We call people aunties and uncles, nans and grand-dads because of that caring.

“In our families, on Palm Island for example, women play a very big role. They call the shots on different issues in the community. In the last council election on Palm Island, the majority of six out of ten elected were women. In the coalition, women outnumber men. We work in unity, and women have a big say in where we’re heading and keeping us all in line.

“Older women tell us younger activists: ‘You’re our spokespeople, and you give it to them! You’ve got our blessing.’ It’s women like Aunty Gloria Beckett and Aunty Ruth Hegarty who say that this is about working people, not only Indigenous people.” 

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