Class Action Over Wages Stolen from Indigenous Australians

Class Action Over Wages Stolen from Indigenous Australians
Australian premier replaces the NSW flag with the Aboriginal flag. (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

A class action has been launched against the West Australian (WA) government in the hope of recovering wages stolen from Indigenous workers.

Shine Lawyers will lodge the class action in the Federal Court on Monday on behalf of workers whose wages were stolen as part of a labour scheme operated by the WA government under the Native Administration Act 1936 and Native Welfare Act 1963.

"Under these discriminatory laws, Indigenous Australians were not only separated from their families but forced to work for little or no money, locking them into a vicious cycle of poverty and disadvantage," head of class actions at Shine Lawyers Jan Saddler said.

"They performed physically demanding jobs in harsh conditions akin to slavery and in some cases were only paid with bread and beef."

Class action group member Ron Harrington-Smith was four-years-old when he was forcibly taken from his mother to work at the Mount Margaret mission in the north-eastern Goldfields region.

His duties included chopping and carting wood to missionaries in their houses, marshalling livestock and cleaning soiled toilet pans.

"All of this was barefoot and in squalid conditions," Harrington-Smith said.

"It's hard to imagine that we endured all this suffering. It is unfair and appalling, and they have to be found guilty of the facts and pay us back the stolen wages which are owed."

Anyone subject to the relevant legislation which had their wages stolen is eligible to join the class action, including descendants of deceased workers and their estates.

Last year, the Queensland government settled a class action relating to similar unpaid entitlements for $190 million.

The Queensland class action was led by Hans Pearson and covered 1939 to 1972, when he and his fellow Indigenous workers had their pay given to the state under the Protection Act.

On July 9, 2018, The Guardian reported that Pearson had argued the Queensland government breached its duties as a trustee and fiduciary by withholding the wages, and also made unauthorised withdrawals and welfare fund deductions.

John Bottoms, special counsel of Pearson’s legal representatives BE Law, said it was an overdue acknowledgement of the injustice faced by thousands of Indigenous people.

“Through their hard work and toil in harsh conditions, the Indigenous claimants, in this case, played a significant role in the development of modern Queensland,” said Stuart Price, chief executive of litigation funder Litigation Lending.

“That they were denied wages during this time is a historic wrong,” Price said.

It has been estimated that around $500 million was seized from Indigenous people in Queensland.

The Epoch Times reporter Caden Pearson contributed to this article. Caden Pearson also acknowledges a family connection to Mr. Hans Pearson.