Thousands of Aboriginal Australians sue over unpaid work

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When 93-year-old Maisie Weston recalls the early years of her working life, she often uses the word “lonely”.

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Photo: Mint Images/Frans Lanting/AFP

At 16 years of age, she was sent to work as a domestic servant, the beginning of years of working in houses on farms across Western Australia’s south-west.

“You do the cooking, you do housework such as it was. Just every day work, you did it,” she said.

“It was a lonely life, I did practically everything.”

Weston is one of thousands of Aboriginal people who worked across Western Australia under wage control legislation, which allowed the State Government to withhold wages from Aboriginal people over a period from the late 1800s until the early 1970s.

She was born near Katanning, a Goreng woman of the Noongar nation in Western Australia’s Great Southern.

As a child she lived in a number of government-run settlements for indigenous people, before being sent to her first job, working for who she describes as an English man and his Australian wife.

“I had to get up very early and get the breakfast ready,” she said.

“I was a strong kid at 16, I was able to do a lot of work.”

Weston’s wage was seven shillings and sixpence a week, and she recalled asking for permission to spend additional money she had earned.

“If you wanted to buy anything more you had to write a letter.”

She said she felt helpless to change or improve her situation and wished she could have received a more formal school education.

“Aboriginal children were not allowed in the state schools. They didn’t worry about giving you an education, they just sent you to work,” she said.

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The fight for compensation

More than 2000 people, including Weston, have so far joined a class action launched against the Western Australian Government in the hope of claiming compensation and lost earnings for the decades of unpaid labour forced on indigenous people until 1972.

The class action was launched by Shine Lawyers, which estimated millions of dollars in stolen or unpaid wages could be owed to people who worked in a range of industries, from stockmen and laundry assistants to kitchen hands and domestic workers.

It recently conducted the first case management hearing with the next hearing scheduled for May next year.

Marda Marda man Steve Kinnane is a writer and researcher working for the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre.

His grandmother, Jessie Argyle, also worked as a domestic servant.

By chance in 1988, while working as a courier, Kinnane stumbled across a file of records kept on his grandmother stored at an old library.

“There are 18,000 personal files still in existence … on Aboriginal people such as my grandmother and mother and other family members,” he said.

“The [files] are a rich source of information about exactly how the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, later the Native Welfare Department, controlled people’s lives.”

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More than 2000 people are taking legal action against the government in Western Australia. Photo: Rene Riegal/ Unsplash

Kinnane said his grandmother’s file covered her working life from 1918 until 1948.

“It documents some 320 pages of letters, judgments, surveillance, trust accounts, her desire to access her money,” he said.

“As an example, my grandmother was keen to purchase clothing. That would have to be a request that was made to [Chief Protector] Mr Neville.

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“Mr Neville would then decide on what that clothing would be, and there are items such as underwear, aprons, shoes, stockings, all these things had to be applied for through the department, through her own trust account for money that they held in trust for her.

“But they decided whether or not she got to access it or not.”

Kinnane said he hoped the class action filed against the Government would be treated with honesty and a sense of justice, and would lead to broader truth telling, education, and acknowledgement of how Aboriginal people were treated.

‘We worked very hard’

Wajarri elder Len Merry, 71, was born on a station in the Murchison region and went on to live and work on a number of properties in the area.

He remembers his younger years with fondness, but also remembers working hard, long hours building fences, droving sheep and cattle, mustering, and shearing.

“We never had an easy time, we worked very hard,” he said.

In the early days most work was completed on horseback. Merry started work when he could get his foot in the stirrup at about 10 years of age or younger.

“No school. If we heard a Land Rover coming we’d run for the bush, don’t come back until midnight, that’s the way our father wanted us to grow up,” he said.

He fondly remembers the strong community of Aboriginal people who lived in the region, and reflected sadly on losing that community when equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers were phased in from December 1968.

“It was really bad, you start losing your family, they start going away, moving to town, that’s where they all died really,” he said.

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“The station owners couldn’t pay them money. They used to just give them tucker. They’d work for tucker and a bit of meat and they were very happy for that. A little bit of money, not much.

“When the wage came up they had to move on.”

Merry hoped the class action would compensate Aboriginal people for retained wages held in full or part.

“It wasn’t easy, and we loved it, but I’d like to see something back from it,” he said.

“I still can’t work out why they worked us so hard. You can still live now without doing that work, it was very hard.

“When I was working I was getting up at three o’clock in the morning and knocking off at nine o’clock at night.”

The Queensland Government settled a long-running stolen wages case for $190 million in July 2019, with thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people seeking to recover wages earned over three decades.

The Western Australian class action is expected to be settled out of court.

– ABC

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