Australia’s so-called ‘stolen wages cases’ are set to lift the lid on working conditions for Aboriginal people across the country.
Barrister Joshua Creamer, a Wannyi and Kalkadoon man who is working across the cases in three states and the Northern Territory, said Aboriginal workers endured some of the starkest conditions imaginable until the early ’70s.
Many were paid only “starvation rations” of flour, sugar and tea, while others were paid only pocket money, Mr Creamer said.
“In certain instances you would say they were slaves,” Mr Creamer said. “People working who were never paid for long periods of work – there is a strong argument that it was slavery.”
NIT exclusively reported this month that lawyers were poised to lodge class actions — expected to be worth tens of millions of dollars — in courts in New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Western Australia over unpaid wages dating back more than 100 years.
Action is already underway in Queensland.
Mr Creamer and other lawyers have been criss-crossing the country, visiting the NT, WA and NSW to collect people’s stories ahead of the action, which is due to begin early next year.
“This is the extreme limits of humanity, if it was humanity,” Mr Creamer said.
“Some of the property owners’ animals were treated better than the Aboriginal people.”
He said many Australian industries were built on the backs of Aboriginal workers, but the Aboriginal people had nothing to show for their long hours of labour.
He said the cases also struck close to home.
“(Growing up) in Mt Isa, I was very close to a family up there, a lady in particular,” he said. “I was like a son and her children were like children to my mother, so we were close.
“I got to speak with her when I was in Mt Isa and … she’s worked on stations all her life and never been paid a cent.
“These are some of the most economically disadvantaged people in the country, but they’ve been working their whole life. It doesn’t make sense.
“They’ve been building up these cattle industries for decades, for these farmers and they’ve got nothing to show for it.
“It’s not through lack of hard work, I can tell you. The conditions people are saying they were working under and the decades they’ve been working, they wouldn’t be able to rustle up $2 in an emergency.”
Mr Creamer said he had been told similar stories in the NT.
“I had a guy out in the Territory last week (who worked) three o’clock in the morning to six o’clock at night, seven days a week,” he said.
“They only got time off for Christmas. They didn’t take weekends or holidays. Really tough conditions, living in the outstations, working like dogs and being treated like dogs essentially.”
Mr Creamer said the workers included stockmen, farm workers and maids.
He said under legislation in place in the states and the Territory, Aboriginal workers saw little to none of their wages.
“Some of these people were paid nothing,” he said. “Some say they were given a little bit of pocket money, a couple of bob here and there.
“Others say they never saw any money at all … that was the system in place.
“The money was supposed to be paid by the employer to the government and the government was supposed to administer that money to the benefit of the people whose money it was.”
Mr Creamer said they had yet to decide how far back in history the actions would reach.
“It’s good to give people an opportunity to have a voice,” he said.
“There’s a lot of history that the everyday person on the street doesn’t understand (and) hopefully these cases will bring the realities to light of what Aboriginal people have had to go through.”
A spokesman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said the issue was mainly one for the states in cases where they controlled the wages earned by Indigenous workers.
He said the NSW, Queensland and WA governments had all set up reparation schemes.
“The Commonwealth will consider any substantive claims from Indigenous Australians where they and their wages were within the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction during the relevant period,” the spokesman said.
“If claims are made, it is likely they will be made through the courts. Further comment is therefore not appropriate at this stage.”
The NSW Government said under the circumstances it was not appropriate for it to comment.
The WA Government did not respond to NIT’s inquiries.