Landmark class actions expected to be worth tens of millions of dollars are about to be launched against the West Australian and New South Wales governments and the Commonwealth on behalf of Indigenous battlers over historical unpaid wages.
Lawyers said this week documents would shortly be lodged with courts in the two states and also the Northern Territory.
In September last year, NIT exclusively revealed the WA Government could face unprecedented legal action for allegedly treating Aboriginal workers like slaves more than half a century ago.
National special counsel for Shine law firm Jan Saddler told NIT this week the state and territory action would seek to correct past wrongs on behalf of elderly Aboriginal people, many of who lived in remote areas.
“They are very proud and very decent community-minded Australians and they’ve lived with this injustice for a very long time,” Ms Saddler said.
“There is a level of forbearance that this is the way it is; that it’s always been like this.
“There is certainly anger and almost a sense of disbelief that they were in this situation. Like how can your government do this to you?
“One thing that is very clear is that the people we speak to have a very clear understanding that they were denied their rightful entitlements. They are very clear about that.
“They knew it was going on, but they were powerless to do anything about it.”
The legal moves come as a 300-person strong class action led by Hans Pearson, the elderly uncle of Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, continues before the Federal Court in Queensland.
The Queensland action is seeking to recoup wages allegedly placed in trust on behalf of Aboriginal workers — but not given to them — over a period of about four decades.
In WA, Aboriginal workers such as stockmen, labourers and domestic servants were allegedly not even required to be paid a wage, but could be retained as workers for just food and board.
“At this stage we’re focusing on WA, the NT and NSW in addition to Queensland,” Ms Saddler said.
“They seem to be the states where (firstly) there was the legislation and, secondly, the legislation affected a large number of people and, thirdly, we had a large number of people fit the criteria based on the demographics we’ve looked at so far who would have been affected by the legislation.
“We look at a broad range of issues. There are a number of different aspects of the general allegations that we’re looking at.
“We’re looking at the circumstances where people’s wages were withheld and held in a trust.
“We’re looking at those circumstances where people were not paid wages at all.
“We’re looking at those circumstances where government benefits were not, again, paid and again held in trust and not paid to the people who were entitled to receive those government security payments.
“There’s also in WA the situation where beneficiaries of deceased estates were not necessarily paid the proceeds of those estates and those proceeds were held in trust and never paid to them.”
Ms Saddler said the class actions would be open to people in each of the states and the NT to join.
Three separate actions are expected to be lodged.
She said the law firm had had hundreds of inquiries.
“This is a situation where we say the government had in place a system that was designed and intended to deny Indigenous people their rightful entitlements, whether that be by way of retention of their wages or withholding of the payment of benefits that they were entitled to under legislation or other means – that was a policy that was in place.”
Ms Saddler said her firm was currently deciding who should lead the WA, NSW and NT actions and welcomed feedback from communities.
“It is a big undertaking for the person concerned,” she said.
“Being the face of a class action is not an easy task, that’s for sure.”
She said many of the people who had contacted the firm were aged 70 years or over and had been battlers throughout their lives.
“It’s quite shocking to see the circumstances that these people live in and that they endured when they ought to have been receiving payments that they were legally entitled to receive,” Ms Saddler said.
She said the documents would be lodged with the courts, probably the Federal Court, this year or early next year.
The government would be served with notice of the actions in accordance with court rules.
“We’re very close to commencing the proceedings,” Ms Saddler said.
She said the actions were a massive undertaking, with lawyers flying across the country from Tennant Creek in the NT, to Darwin, Perth, Hobart and Broome in WA’s north in coming weeks.
Ms Saddler said anyone who thought they had a claim could contact the firm.