Unions want stolen wages scandal on election radar

BY AMY MCQUIREOCTOBER 25, 2011

Originally published by Tracker Magazine.

LNP Leader Campbell Newman gears up for the glare of the cameras… the Queensland Council of Union want to ensure that the stolen wages issue is not lost in the 2012 election campaign. (AAP IMAGE/PATRICK HAMILTON)

By Amy McQuire
QUEENSLAND

QUEENSLAND: In the midst of political fights about dirt files, LNP leader Campbell Newman’s accountability and Premier Anna Bligh’s record, the union movement are hoping to get one crucial issue noticed in the lead up to next year’s state election – the half billion dollar theft of wages from the state’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers over the past century.

The Queensland government controlled the wages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers from the early 20th century to around 1972. In the mid-80s, Indigenous workers were still being paid below their non-Indigenous counterparts under the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government.

The lost wages were channelled into trust accounts, and in thousands of cases simply disappeared. The amount of stolen wages has been estimated at at least $500 million.

Despite the scale of the scandal, in 2002 the Beattie government announced a $55.4 million take-it-or-leave-it reparations fund in an attempt to settle the debt. The maximum amount a person could claim was $4000.

The offer was widely seen as an insult, with many stolen wages victims refusing to accept the lump sum payments in exchange for what for some was a lifetime of wage theft.

By 2008 there was $21.2 million leftover in the reparations fund. Premier Anna Bligh again angered victims by announcing the leftover reparations money would be funnelled into an Indigenous education fund, along with $10.8 million leftover from the Aborigines Welfare Fund (AWF), which was frozen under the Goss Labor government.

The issue has since largely fallen off the political agenda, but the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU) are still conducting meetings around the state.

QCU General Secretary Ron Monaghan told Tracker that the organisation had developed a “Charter for Working Queenslanders” to take to the next election, and that settling the Stolen Wages debt was high on the agenda.

“We have a three-pronged approach,” Mr Monaghan told Tracker last week.

“First, we want them to reopen the reparations fund, but lower the onus of proof. And then we want them to re-distribute the money.

“There will never be enough money. A lot of the people lost a lifetime of wages. But it is still welcome. This is about the settlement of this issue, of people recognising that, from the government down, we have to offer reparations because this is wrong.”

Another part of the QCU campaign involved launching a legal action on behalf of Uncle Conrad Yeatman from Yarrabah, who was underpaid for decades after starting out as a carpenter and labourer at the age of 14.

Mr Yeatman had refused the original reparations offer and is now calling for the full recovery of his wages across a lifetime of work.

The case is a landmark one because it puts the onus of proof back onto the state government, rather than on the individual. But two years on, a court date still hasn’t been settled.

“Recently we filed a member statement claim. There are legal processes to go through on the other side of the crown, asking them for a trial date.” Mr Monaghan said the QCU are hoping the case will go to trial in the next month. But he hopes that the QCU can raise public awareness before then.

He commended both the Beattie and Bligh governments for addressing the issue, but says it’s not enough.

Mr Monaghan said history will judge the state harshly if it does not settle it now.

“Our position is you cannot deny the Protections Acts that ranged from 1904 right up to the 1960s and 70s, which denied people wages based on the colour of their skin.

“You are responsible for that. You should make reparations. The records have been lost, damaged in floods, or just weren’t put down in the first place.

“But the money wasn’t paid or accounted for… that led to further inequality, which exists right up to this day.”
Mr Monaghan said that it is important for Queenslanders to understand the debt government owes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, the majority of whom were touched by the scandal.

“We want to stress that whether we win, lose, or draw, our aim is to raise awareness to these laws that denied people their wages,” he said. “When you talk to young people, they find it unbelievable that in today’s society this could happen in Australia, let alone in Queensland.

“We want people to know how this hurt, how it hurt right to the bone, right to the core.

“It is about dignity. The lack of dignity afforded to people to have to ask for their own money. It hurt them and it was real disadvantage which will probably live with them for the rest of their lives.

“We want people to understand that there are still people alive who had it happen to them.

“We need to settle this so we can move on.”

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