The West Australian government could face unprecedented legal action for treating Aboriginal workers like slaves more than half a century ago.
Lawyers from a national law firm will fly to WA to investigate whether government-sanctioned working conditions akin to slavery operated in the State.
They will look at adding WA claims to legal action being taken in Queensland to recover wages for Aboriginal workers. The Northern Territory and New South Wales is also being examined.
Lawyer Rebecca Jancauskas, a partner with law firm Shine, said even among the other States WA stood out.
“I would say the arrangements in place in WA for a period of time were akin to institutionalised slavery,” she told www.nit.com.au.
The move comes as a class action being led by Hans Pearson, the 77-year-old uncle of prominent Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, had its first directions hearing in the Federal Court in Queensland last week.
Mr Pearson and about 300 other Aboriginal people have taken action against the Queensland government to recoup wages allegedly placed in trust on their behalf over a period of about four decades.
The matter will be back before the court on October 18.
Ms Jancauskas said since launching the Queensland action the firm had been contacted by dozens of other individuals, their descendants and community groups.
It was now investigating whether similar action could be taken on behalf of people or their descendants in WA, NSW and the NT.
She said lawyers would travel to remote WA communities in the next few months.
“In Queensland this is an action to recover wages that were held in trust by the State government on behalf of the Indigenous people,” Ms Jancauskas said. “But in Western Australia it was not a requirement of the legislation in force at the time that Indigenous people receive a wage.
“So long as there was board and food provided there was no requirement for a wage to be paid.
“As part of our investigations into litigation in Western Australia we are considering how this sits in terms of being akin to a form of slavery. We need to give some thought to how the claim is structured in light of the fact we understand many people were paid no wage at all.
“In Queensland, however, I understand it was a requirement that Indigenous people receive a wage so therefore it is a claim to recover the portion of their wage that was held by the government.”
Ms Jancauskas said WA landowners or individuals had needed a government permit or agreement to employ Indigenous people.
“That permit or that agreement that the government provided to the employer mandated the conditions of that employment,” she said. “In order for an Indigenous person to be employed by a private landholder the government needed to rubber stamp the details of their employment.”
She said the legal action could have far-reaching consequences.
“There has been a history of slavery of American-Indian people and there has been litigation run in the US seeking to compensate American Indians for those years of mistreatment,” she said.
“It appears there are striking parallels with Australia as well, unfortunately, in terms of Indigenous people working for no wages at all.”
Ms Jancauskas said the situation in the NT, which was at the time governed by the Commonwealth, was similar to Queensland.
She said the wages of Indigenous workers such as stockmen, labourers and domestic servants were paid into a government trust. The workers were given an allowance which was allegedly a fraction of their pay packet.
Lawyers estimate in today’s dollars Mr Pearson is owed about $150,000.
Ms Jancauskas said in NSW it was child workers who were affected.
“The only difference is the protectionist legislation in place governed the employment of children,” she said. “I’m not presently aware there were adults employed under that legislation, rather I think NSW confined its protectionist regime to children.
“I believe there is a correlation to the Stolen Generation in that the children housed in institutions were trained in vocations and were then put to work subject to State-sanctioned agreements that mandated that a portion of their wages needed to be held by the State in trust.
“Other than that difference, there are no other material differences with NSW.”
Ms Jancauskas said additional proceedings could be run at the same time as the Queensland action or separately.
“We need to decide upon the logistics but it would seem to make sense given the close correlation that it be amalgamated and run together, but the proceedings may need to be filed in the different court registries,” she said.