Stolen wages: ‘Continuing the whitewash’

May 22, 2010
Dr Ros Kidd. Photo by Ted Reithmuller.

“One of the great scandals of Australia's history: Aboriginal labour in the 20th century”, was a the title of a lecture by Dr Ros Kidd in the Queensland Trades and Labour building on May 20.

The Alex Macdonald Memorial Lecture attracted about 80 people. It was organised by the Brisbane Labour History Association and sponsored by the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU).

Kidd's latest book, Trustees on Trial, documents the abuse and misappropriation of Aboriginal wages during the last century. "The fight for justice is still going on”, Kidd said.

"During the first few decades of the 20th century, Aborigines could be removed from their homelands without reason.”

Aboriginal girls were enslaved as servants on remote pastoral stations. Malnutrition, sub-standard housing, lack of hygiene and poor water supplies were rife on Aboriginal reserves, Kidd said. The infant death rate was phenomenal.

"Aboriginal labour was absolutely crucial to the development of the country. A major aim of the protection system was to control this labour. Wages were withheld, with only tobacco provided as payment for work.

“Any complaint led to punishment, including exile to areas like Palm Island. Child labour was still common in the late 1950s."

Kidd outlined how police “protectors” would control all wages paid to Aboriginal workers. But often, wages weren’t paid at all. Police fraud was widespread, as revealed by a number of official audits.

As a result, the bulk of Aboriginal wages were centralised in Brisbane, used for investment. “Trust fund savings were transferred to the government treasury and ‘diverted to revenue”, Kidd said.

A Stolen Wages campaign began in the mid 1990s to fight for justice for those unpaid Aboriginal workers.

When compensation was finally offered, in 2002, the then Beattie state Labor government demanded claimants sign away further rights to claim, in order to accept an offer of up to $7000 from a special fund.

The current Labor government of Premier Anna Bligh has proposed that $20 million of the total $55 million offered to Aboriginal claimants be redirected to an Aboriginal Welfare Fund, to finance educational scholarships for Aboriginal children.

But claimants want all the funds to be repaid to the legitimate workers; Aboriginal scholarships should be funded by the government, not by wages stolen from Aboriginal workers.

The Queensland union movement has backed the Stolen Wages campaign from its beginning. The QCU is now supporting a test case before the courts.

"The denial of the reality of stolen wages continues the whitewashing of Australia’s history today”, Kidd said. "Our duty is to force our governments to be accountable for their actions.”

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