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WA parliament apologises for decades of Indigenous worker exploitation

Jarred Cross -

A bipartisan apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers for decades of stolen wages in Western Australia has been heard by members and applicants of the historic legal action for recompensation in the state's parliament on Tuesday.

The WA government recently reached a landmark agreement to repay up to $165 million to eligible claimants living and on behalf of surviving relatives of Indigenous workers - largely stockmen, who were "ripped off", as described by Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Tony Buti on Tuesday, for their labour between 1936 and 1972.

The class action was launched to the federal court by Senior Gooniyandi Elder Mervyn Street, who was in parliament to receive the apology.

Hearings were conducted earlier this year.

WA Premier Roger Cook presented the motion, which he said does not change what happened, but is intended as "step in a healing process" and towards closing "this shameful part of Western Australia's history".

"The fact that this treatment existed for Aboriginal workers for decades is a blight on the legacy of successive governments," he said.

"We are sorry."

Mr Cook also acknowledged the previous reparation scheme of 2012 "was inadequate and excluded many workers who were impacted by these laws".

Labor, Nationals and Liberal members extended apologies to applicants present and acknowledged the contributions of Indigenous Western Australians to the state's economy throughout its history.

Dr Buti said historic policies and practices which contributed to wage theft "violates a core value of the labour movement" and saw "Aboriginal people being exploited".

"The underpinning philosophy of those laws and policies were based on a view by settler Australian society that Aboriginal people were not worthy of equal rights as other Western Australians," he said.

"This was a shameful period of our history. It is not about guilt that we view this history. It is about doing the right thing as contemporary Western Australians.."

Yawuru, Nimanburr and Bardi woman and member for Kimberley Divina D'Anna said the decades of stolen wages "we're not by accident", and in cases amounted to "slavery".

"The reality of the history of this state is that Aboriginal people have been the backbone of the cattle industry. Business and non-Indigenous people have gained financially off the slavery of Aboriginal people."

Ms D'Anna also gave mention to "distressing stories" of "inhumane treatment" endured by Indigenous people which came forward during the case.

She said she was "very proud" of Mr Street and his efforts.

Opposition leader Shane Love said he trusted the apology and settlement "would bring a sense of recognition and respect to those who are treated so poorly".

Liberal leader Libby Mettam said "our nation's history is marked by moments of triumph and progress, but it is also stained by instances of injustice and great shame".

She recognised "the exploitation of Aboriginal labour was not an isolated incident but a systemic practice".

"These workers faced not only economic exploitation, but also the erasure of their dignity and agency," Ms Mettam said.

"We are sorry.

"It is our responsibility as a society to confront this truth, learn from it and ensure such injustice is never repeated."

Away from parliament, class action member Barbara Moore said she was glad the government had come to realise the pain and suffering caused, and has been "a long time coming".

"To tell the stories is so important, it's all about the truth telling – it's still very painful for all the stories to come out for us. I have been crying thinking of these stories," she said.

"I want to acknowledge the people who have passed on who suffered and slaved under these conditions for no money; for flour, tea and sugar; and worked for a bed. The government has taken so long to acknowledge these stories, and we would never have won the class action without these stories. For the government to acknowledge this is a long time coming and it means so much. I get emotional thinking about it.

"I thank the people who have passed on – they are forever in our hearts and without their stories, we would've never got this compensation. When we told all these stories, it brought back a lot of memories and a lot of heartache and pain.

"From North, South, East and West, this has affected all of our people."

Shine Lawyers' joint head of class actions Vicky Antzoulatos said the apology is a "significant step" towards reconciliation for Indigenous men, women and children who works for little-to-now wages during the period.

The motion on Tuesday was met with unanimous support from the house and followed with applause.

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