Descendants of Indigenous workers who laboured for decades as stockmen, farmhands, and domestic workers in the Northern Territory with minimal or no pay have launched a “landmark” class action to recoup their lost wages.
The class, being represented by national plaintiff firm Shine Lawyers, is seeking compensation from the Commonwealth for income lost between 1933 and 1972, a time in which Indigenous Australians were “denied basic rights and entitlements under so-called protective legislation”.
The proceedings were filed in the evening of Thursday, 10 June in the Federal Court of Australia, and allege that workers covered under the period in question “toiled in harsh conditions akin to slavery, often in return for food rations rather than wages”.
It follows the class action filed by Shine in October of last year against the West Australian government for stolen wages, and the $190 million settlement that was reached in Queensland over the same issue.
The firm’s head of class actions, Jan Saddler (pictured) said that the Commonwealth used its powers under the Aboriginal Ordinance, Welfare Ordinance, and Employment Ordinance Acts to move the money owed to workers into trust accounts, “but the funds were never released in full, if at all”.
“Under these discriminatory laws, the Commonwealth got away with robbing Indigenous Australians of their hard-earned wages, meaning those who were already separated from their families entered a vicious cycle of poverty that was preventable,” she said.
“This case is as much about acknowledging the pain historic policies have inflicted on Indigenous Australians as it is about compensation. Rather than sweeping this injustice under the rug, we must address the mistakes of the past if we’re to have any chance of a brighter future.”
The action is being funded by Litigation Lending Services (LLS), whose director, Aboriginal leader Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO, said that it is time that the issue of stolen wages was addressed.
“Australians expect a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and it’s embarrassing the Commonwealth has not already acted to resolve this injustice,” he said.
“We are proud to serve a pathway to justice for these First Nations people whose efforts built our great nation.”
The action is supporting claimants such as Thomas Conway, whom Shine said was 11 years old when he was removed from his family and sent to work on Alexandria Station.
“I worked on water bores or in the timber yard or stock yard. You got up at six o’clock in the morning and knock-off was at six o’clock at night,” Mr Conway said.
“There was no money. Just working for the white man. When Gough Whitlam gave us land rights, we walked free, back to country, and never went back.”
Shine Lawyers said that anyone who was subject to the relevant legislation and had their wages stolen is eligible to join the class action. This includes, it noted, descendants of deceased workers and their estates.