Content warning: This story contains reference to sexual assault. Please refer to the services at the bottom of this article for support.
At 15-years-old Lou Nannup got himself a real job.
Not knowing much about the workplace and blinded by his desire to be a cowboy, Mr Nannup said goodbye to his siblings and parents, William and Alice, and took the train from his home in Geraldton to Belele Station, a sheep station near Meekatharra in Western Australia’s Mid West.
Told he would earn “five pounds a week in keep”, a young Mr Nannup began working on the pastoral station with enthusiasm.
“I knew nothing about wages … all I wanted to do was ride horses and be a cowboy,” Mr Nannup said with a grin.
“There were no pay days … and it didn’t concern me because the rest of the people that were working on the station were being paid the same way.
“We were paid in meals … sugar, flour and tea … so I took it as what’s norm.
“I done that for six years straight — no Christmases, no going home.”
After Mr Nannup and his boss decided he could go home for Christmas as his mother had been asking about him, unsure whether he was dead or alive, Mr Nannup went to pick up his cheque before the journey home.
“He was just waving the cheque dry that he’d written, and I walked in and he handed it to me,” he said.
“And I looked — 40 quid was what he handed to me. For six years.”
Mr Nannup asked where the rest of it was and his boss responded: “Well you’ve got your cowboy hat, you’ve got your cowboy shirt, you’ve got your moleskin pants and you’ve got your elastic side riding boots. And you’ve been fed as well.”
After six years of mustering 32,000 sheep, 1,000 head of cattle and 500 horses from 3.30am until 9.30pm, seven days a week, with no holidays, no running water at camp and no fresh meat to eat apart from kangaroo — Mr Nannup left Belele Station with his 40 quid and never went back.
“When Mr Morrison says we were never treated as slaves, I think he’d better have another think about it,” Mr Nannup said.
Lockridge resident Edith De Giambattista suffered a similar fate as a young girl.
Ms De Giambattista was based at Carrolup Mission and began working on farms and for private homes as a domestic worker at just 13-years-old.
“I worked on about five or six farms doing most of the housework,” she said.
“There was one lady who was very good to me … the rest of them, well they treated me like a little dog.
“The last one I went to, she almost killed me.”
Ms De Giambattista’s last boss put her on a train with a burst appendix. A stranger found the young girl and took her to hospital where she was operated on immediately, saving her life.
In another home she worked at, Ms De Giambattista was sexually assaulted.
She said growing up on Carrolup was very traumatic and that it was dirty “like a rubbish tip”.
Her life as domestic worker was no respite, put to work in homes for hours and never seeing any compensation.
“Every cent we got was … put in a trust fund for us, but we never seen the money,” she said.
“We never got any of the money that we worked for.”
Now 87, Ms De Giambattista said the hurt will “never go away”.
“People say it never happened, but mind you it happened alright and I know it happened,” she said.
“I’ve waited 50 years … I should be paid compensation.
“Most of the kids that were in the mission where I was are all passed on now. Where will their money go?”
“It’ll be very good to be compensated, but it’ll never rest … its always in the back of your head.”
In October, Shine Lawyers launched the Stolen Wages class action against the WA Government on behalf of Aboriginal workers who had their wages stolen in what can only be described as a mode of slavery.
Shine Lawyers’ Head of Class Actions, Jan Saddler, said past discriminatory laws had forced Indigenous Australians to “work for little or no money, locking them into a vicious cycle of poverty and disadvantage”.
“They performed physically demanding jobs in harsh conditions akin to slavery and in some cases were only paid with bread and beef,” Ms Saddler said.
“While no amount of money can undo the harm done, these workers and their families deserve to be compensated for the inhumane way in which they were treated.”
While the WA Government hopes to settle the class action out of court, Mr Nannup hopes to see it go through the entire legal process.
“[The Government] give you time to pass away so they don’t have to pay you anything,” Mr Nannup said.
At 77, the proud Noongar man is still waiting to see the money he’s owed.
“I don’t intend to take pittance; I only want what I’m due. That’s all I ask for; I don’t ask for any more, but I certainly don’t look for any less.”
A spokesperson for the State Government said the State is considering the claims put forward by Shine Lawyers.
“The Government will look to achieve a mediated outcome of any claims made in respect to the ‘stolen wages’ issues, with an acknowledgment of the impact that historical government policies have had on Aboriginal people and their families over many years.”
If this article has raised any issues for you, please call or visit the resources below:
- 1800 RESPECT – 1800 737 732, https://www.1800respect.org.au/
- Sexual assault helplines for your State or Territory – https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/sexual-assault-and-abuse-helplines
By Hannah Cross