Late last year, the federal Senate handed down its findings from an inquiry into the stolen wages issue. But the report’s long-overdue completion sparked the sort of political response you might expect from a Senate inquiry into navel lint.
Rural and remote Queensland could not have developed without Aboriginal labour, frequently acknowledged as more skilled and reliable that white workers. Every dimension of this labour was controlled by the State for most of the twentieth century, including management of earnings totalling millions of dollars.
At the end of 2006, in amongst the usual end of year rush and the ALP leadership and front bench dramas which now seem so long ago, the Senate Committee examining the Stolen Wages issue tabled its report.
I moved the motion in the Senate to establish the Inquiry, but it would not have occurred without the support of the Liberal and Labor parties. It was pleasing that the final report was unanimous, including six recommendations for action. But even though the recommendations required minimal action or expense from the federal government, six months later there has been no federal response.
The terms of reference for the Senate inquiry related to ‘Indigenous workers whose paid labour was controlled by Government’. Throughout much of the 20th century, there were extensive controls over the employment, working conditions and wages of Indigenous workers which permitted, both explicitly and implicitly, the non-payment of wages to some Indigenous workers, as well as the underpayment of wages, and the diversion of wages into trust and savings accounts. It has already been demonstrated that in both Queensland and NSW that these accounts were raided by governments and other ‘protectors’. It is very likely that similar practices also occurred in some other states.
While the Queensland government has acknowledged this wrong, its ‘reparations’ offer was dismal, offering a maximum of $4000 for people who in some cases had decades of underpayment or non-payment of wages – and only for those who were still alive, meaning there was no recompense at all for the descendants of thousands of people who had already died. Much of the money from this derisory offer was not claimed, as people also had to sign an indemnity against future legal action to be eligible. Negotiations are continuing about what to do with the left over funds from the offer, but there is still no sign of acknowledgment that far more than this was taken over the decades.
However, there has been a good development recently, with the WA Government announcing that it will establish a taskforce to investigate wages and Commonwealth benefits stolen from Aboriginal people.
If you think that terms like “stolen wages” are a bit over the top, please read this article from the National Indigenous Times. As it makes clear, words like “slavery” are not rhetorical devices for the here and now, but were widely used “back then”.
Below are some excerpts from some of the history of stolen wages practices in Queensland, from the website of historian Dr Ros Kidd.
The State maintained a contract labour system for 70 years on the grounds that it could better protect the industrial and financial interests of Aboriginal workers. As early as 1904, a system of thumb print authentification had to be introduced because of high levels of fraud on workers’ earnings by both employers and protectors. From 1912 the State intercepted maternity allowances due to part-Aboriginal mothers and from around 1915 seized bank interest due on the private accounts, using it for rations, blankets and ‘Christmas cheer’ for the Aboriginal settlement residents, whose money it was. For the next fifty years very few residents saw any cash, their earnings acquitted in vouchers on settlement stores which ran at profit margins as high as 40 per cent.
So extensive was the continuing level of police fraud on private accounts that ‘disinterested’ third party witnesses were required from 1921 to verify thumb prints. An Inquiry the following year revealed errors by protectors in nearly half the levy calculations, yet the department dismissed recommendations that workers be allowed to appeal against dubious handling of their accounts. The inspectors also condemned the total lack of departmental oversight of police conduct and of the living and working conditions of 8000 people under control in rural areas.
In 1932, another internal Inquiry condemned common and long standing fraud and pilfering by police, and the Chief Protector again admitted there were no real controls over protectors’ transactions. The inspectors warned that ‘the opportunity for fraud existed to a greater degree than with any other Governmental accounts’, and it was decided to centralise private funds at Head Office, a measure intended ‘to minimise fraud by members of the Police Force who are Protectors.’ However the department refused outright the recommendation that workers be allowed to see some record of dealings on their savings.
This denial is not surprising. Records show that the government itself was confiscating private funds. During the depression, with Treasury approval, a 5 per cent quarterly levy was imposed on all balances over ₤20 ($984.50), and a 2.5 per cent tax, euphemistically described as an administration charge, neatly appropriated bank interest due on all rural accounts. The department admitted this seizure ‘had not yet been resorted to’ in the case of the white public.
Only in 1968 did the government switch from rations to a wage economy on missions and settlements. At a time when the basic wage stood at $37 a week, Department Director Patrick Killoran decreed workers in Indigenous communities be paid $16 – even then, only a fraction of that was cash and the remainder purportedly provided by an ‘incentive’ margin and ‘benefits’ such as housing and amenities. Workforces on the communities were immediately cut by half to keep within budget allocations.