Aboriginal people fight for wages

November 17, 1993

Tony Iltis, Melbourne

"There's been a campaign of lies and deceit by the government for the last 20 years", Peter Guiverra told Green Left Weekly on March 10. Guiverra is one of many Indigenous workers who, for the last two decades, has been fighting to win wages withheld by the government and never paid. While he is talking about the Queensland government, it is rapidly becoming clear governments across Australia are also culpable.

"The issue is that Aboriginal people, for 100 years or more, were forced to work on pastoral properties and as domestics, stockmen and labourers. Their wages were paid directly to the government not to them", Guiverra told GLW. "For the last 20 years people have been trying to get the stolen wages back."

Two years ago, the ALP Queensland government made what Guiverra described as "an offer of next to nothing" to get rid of its legal obligations to the ripped-off workers. This capped the total amount that the government was willing to pay at $55.6 million. "It's been shown that there was $500 million in the welfare fund", Lenora Jackson, another claimant, explained to GLW.

"Just over 20,000 people are still affected by this. And that works out to about $2000 or $4000 each", added Guiverra. "We're actually suggesting to the government that this $2000 and $4000 be considered a down payment, and that the government comes back to the negotiating table with the communities and the individuals — but this too has been rejected."

Jackson explained that the state government also tried to deny any compensation to the descendants of workers who died before May 2002. "We have to fight that", she said.

It has not just been wages that have been stolen in this way. "There's the loss of child endowment and soldiers' benefits. Even some boxers never received their winnings!" Jackson said.

"When people have died their wills have gone straight into this trust account too", Guiverra added.

The spotlight recently has moved to NSW, where a similarly outrageous tale of lies, deceit and betrayal is being revealed.

In 2001, then community services minister Faye Lo Po prepared a proposal that revealed wages and benefits of Indigenous people had disappeared, much of it stolen and some just frittered away in bad investments. The proposal would have returned up to $69 million of this money. The government buried the report until it was leaked to the National Indigenous Times on February 2.

In an attempt to appear contrite, NSW Premier Bob Carr offered an apology to the defrauded Indigenous people in state parliament on March 10. However, an "in-principle" agreement to return the money was accompanied by a gag order on the 2001 proposal, which Carr says he is "looking into" implementing.

Greens MLC Ian Cohen moved a motion to table the proposal, but was denied. He explained: "The government has had the proposal since 2001, no more time is needed. This is not the state's money to bestow or withhold within budget comfort. This is Aboriginal earnings and entitlements that the state as trustee was legally bound to safeguard."

In Victoria, Joel Wright, who is the Australian Council of Trade Unions' (ACTU) Indigenous officer, is campaigning to recover money owed to Aboriginal people who worked on missions in the state's west and south-west. One difficulty is that many of the Indigenous people affected were not aware that they were entitled to the money.

For this reason raising awareness in Aboriginal communities has been central to the Queensland campaign. "In regional centres we've been running forums and workshops around the state", said Guiverra.

He described the response of trade unions as "pretty good. The unions have been picking it up in Queensland and we're down here in Melbourne because the Victorian Trades Hall Council has offered support and the ACTU also has offered their unqualified support. We've been around canvassing individual worksites and the response has been overwhelming."

The campaigners are using a variety of tactics to spread awareness on the issue and pressure the Queensland government. "On August 8 a postcard campaign was launched at a rally in Brisbane", Jackson said.

"There's 50,000 postcards out of 80,000 been distributed. It's been very successful. We're down here to spread the word and gather support", Guiverra added, "We've just had a state election in Queensland and some candidates had this campaign as part of their campaign."

According to Jackson: "The ABC is interested in talking to a few claimants. Every claimant's story is different."

She added that they are also considering taking their fight into court. "We've got legal representatives who are looking at a class action", she said.

From Green Left Weekly, March 17, 2004.
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