First Nations pastoral workers seeking compensation for years of unpaid labour

Lucy Martin ABC News 13 September 2013

Retired stockman Ben Barney worked on pastoral stations and missions around the Kimberley and NT

Aboriginal workers have played a key role in establishing Western Australia's pastoral and agricultural industries.

But until the 1970s, those working on pastoral stations were treated as little more than slaves.

They worked from dawn till dusk in extremely harsh conditions for little or no pay.

But a State Government stolen wages scheme designed to right the wrongs of the past has excluded pastoral workers.

This week dozens of respected elders met in Kununurra to voice their anger and disappointment with the Government.

They say it owes them a huge debt and it's time to pay up.

Years of injustice

Retired stockman Ben Barney was rarely paid for his work on missions and stations around WA's Kimberley region and the Northern Territory.

"There were no wages there. We were just working for tea and sugar and tobacco, shirt, trousers, swag," he said.

"I have to watch the cattle all day and put them in a paddock.

"(It was) hard work mate, I have to get up three o-clock in the morning and I was only 13, 14, just a young fella.

"I don't get up early in the morning, Jesus Christ, I had the stockmen put a whip around my back or get a bullshrub round my back and I have to do the work."

People working on stations had their wages set by pastoralists, rather than the state.

Anxious to keep the politically powerful landowners on side, the government of the time turned a blind eye to the wage arrangements and conditions.

Tom Birch is the deputy chair of the Kimberley Land Council but he was once a talented stockman.

"I can recall getting trousers and shirt but I don't recall if I was getting any (money) at all," he said.

Many other workers toiled on vast government-run missions in the Pilbara, Murchison and South West.

They got paid, but up to three quarters of their wages were taken and put into government trust accounts for safekeeping.

When the Commonwealth started paying Aboriginal people welfare entitlements, the state took those too.

Most never saw the money again.

Sisters Peggy Griffiths and Rosie Gallagher lived and worked on missions and stations.

"We just worked for lollies and cakes," Rosie said.

Peggy says the sisters didn't ask for money because they didn't know they were supposed to get any.

Making Amends

Last year the State Government invited Aboriginal people, who had their income controlled on government-run settlements between 1905 and 1972, to apply for a $2000 ex-gratia payment.

Those who worked on pastoral stations were excluded from the stolen wages scheme because the state didn't directly control their wages.

Just over 2000 people applied for the payment but 700 were knocked back.

Labor's Aboriginal Affairs spokesman Ben Wyatt says the Government deserves credit for taking action on the issue but went about it in the wrong way.

"Whilst it was designed by the Government to bring closure to what is a very vexed period in WA's history, it has had actually had the reverse affect," he said.

Mr Wyatt says those who received the payments were not told why or given an apology.

Likewise, those who were rejected were not given specific details.

"What you have now is confusion and anger, (people are saying) 'Why have you been paid, why have I not been paid? I'm just as entitled because I had my wages stolen too'," Mr Wyatt said.

The Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier is sticking by his decision to exclude pastoral workers, saying he's simply following the recommendations of a 2008 taskforce report on the issue.

"We have certainly adhered to the recommendations of the taskforce in terms of acknowledging the fact that wages were removed from Aboriginal people in government facilities," he said.

"We have righted that wrong, we have acknowledged the fact that wages were taken and they weren't returned.

"The Government cannot be responsible for wages of Aboriginal people who were not in Government facilities."

Kununurra-based solicitor Judy Harrison has taken the fight up on behalf of pastoral workers in the East Kimberley.

She says the Minister can't ignore the role that previous governments played in the exploitation of Aboriginal people.

"The government (of the time)...authorised and approved certain stations to have a certain number of Aboriginal workers on the basis that they receive certain conditions," she said.

"So the government has participated in the conditions that the stations provided.

"Aboriginal people frequently make the point that they believe the pastoral stations wouldn't exist in the current state, apart from the labour they contributed," she said.

"They feel very proud about their working lives on stations and it's part of who they are."

She says the workers want recognition of their contribution to the pastoral industry and an apology for what they had to endure.

But neither of those things have been achieved through the stolen wages scheme.

Saying sorry

Money aside, the workers say a formal apology from the Minister would go a long way towards making amends.

Indeed, the 2008 report recommended the current Government issue a formal apology to workers whose money was withheld by the state.

It also recommended setting up a $2.5 million fund to encourage economic growth in their communities.

But five years on, neither of these have happened and Mr Collier has ruled out a formal apology.

"I'm sorry if they do feel that way and it certainly wasn't the intent of the exercise. The intent was quite clearly to right a wrong," he said.

"I mean inevitably you're going to have some people that are disaffected and disappointed."

Retired stockman Tom Birch says that's an understatement.

"Well you look at the hours you put in, the days you work, day and night...and $2000 doesn't even cut it at all. That's the bottom line," he said.

"I think the Government should look at it and say well, see what benefit we can do for the community and help the old people that are living in these communities."

While no amount of money would full compensate for the lost wages and treatment at the time, Mr Wyatt say recognition - and an apology - would be priceless.

"It's important to really emphasise the fact that this is not an issue of symbolism," he said.

"These are people who worked and had their wages taken from them under policy set by the government at that time.

"Now we have the chance to reconsider to station workers and I'd like to think perhaps the station industry can come on board with this in a celebration or acknowledgment of the work that was done."

He'd also like to see the Government release documents relating to wage arrangements so those who want to pursue legal action have the information they need.

Judy Harrison has called on the Government to negotiate a new reparation scheme with the workers.

"It is for the Government to talk to Aboriginal people to find a figure or to find a package, so it may not be money at all," she said.

"It's to find a combination that is acceptable and which Aboriginal people are willing to receive, and the Government might be very surprised by what it can achieve by collaborating with Aboriginal people."

The retired workers are reluctant to pursue legal action but they haven't ruled it out.

WA under fire over stolen wages compensation
Between 1905 and 1972, the government withheld up to three-quarters of the wages earned by workers on state-run Native Welfare Settlements.