by Gerry Georgatos The Stolen Wages campaign has taken an almighty setback in Western Australia when the state government tossed up a disturbingly paltry compensation offer - and which requires one to extinguish all rights to any further claims if they accept the offer.
According to the state's Indigenous Affairs Minister, Peter Collier, there are at best only 1,400 'legitimate' claimants and he has ruled out the right of families to claim or benefit. Minister Collier, on behalf of the Colin Barnett government has ruled out 100% redress for the wages withheld by government agencies from Aboriginal workers, and is limiting compensation to a one-off maximum cap $2000 payment.
In further insults to those who have long been denied their wages and those who have campaigned for their rights, on March 7, Minister Collier spoke with radio host Paul Murray on Perth's 6PR and said, "We can hold our heads up high..." in that he felt these payments were adequate. He said that previous governments had done nothing wrong in withholding payments from Aboriginal workers because he said the legislation allowed for it, and therefore it was 'legal'.
"There was nothing illegal in withholding wages," he said. Some had 75% of their wages withheld and some have claims where their wages were withheld over 20 years of their working lives. Radio host, Paul Murray had a difficult time accepting that the offer was 'fair' and said, "With this $2,000, aren't you rubbing salt into their wounds? How can this be fair?"
The Western Australian state government offer is by far the worst yet in this country.
The Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (ALSWA) has slammed the WA state government's offer of up to $2,000. "This is a slap in the face and a cruel and heartless offer which offends the very notion of recompense," said ALSWA CEO Adjunct Professor Dennis Eggington.
"This is not just about stolen wages or pensions that were withheld, nor is it about coming up with an equitable scheme. This state's economic power was built upon the backs of hard working, proud Indigenous men and women who had their hard earned wages withheld. To now offer these people such a paltry amount diminishes the contributions that our people have made. Any offer made must also ensure that monies are repaid in terms of todays's monetary value," said Mr Eggington.
Minister Collier has stated the offer is adequate, it will be limited, it will be final and it has to be applied for. He said compensation was too difficult to determine and it covered a period from 1905 to 1972.
He said all claims would have to be made within 6 months. Shadow Indigenous Affairs minister Ben Wyatt said it was unreasonable to expect people with no records to lodge claims within six months.
This offer comes six years after numerous submissions, including from ALSWA, to the Australian Senate Inquiry into Stolen Wages recommending the return of stolen wages to Aboriginal workers. Many of them have died - however advocates argue that their families should be entitled to these wages where the worker(s) are deceased, as legacy and for a right to advance their families after this in good part was denied by the wages being withheld in the first place.
"This offer is an affront to all fair-minded Western Australians who believe in common decency and a fair go and it is a vile and disgusting breach of the duty of this state to those whose wages were stolen," said Mr Eggington.
"In a state that is reaping a fortune from the resource sector to offer nothing more than the crumbs off the table is reminiscent of the mission ration days. In the current economic climate it is hardly any better than flour and tea."
Many Aboriginal workers had their wages withheld in trust accounts by successive state governments and with the early mortality rate of Aboriginal adults, many have not survived long enough to see their wages returned.
“This is not just about paying back what was stolen in today’s value, but also rewriting this state’s shameful history to ensure that the contributions made by our people are rightfully acknowledged. ALSWA urges the Indigenous Affairs Minister, Peter Collier to retract the offensive offer and begin urgent negotiations to settle upon a fair and equitable amount commensurate with the valuable contributions that Indigenous men and women have made to WA," said Mr Eggington. “The significant legacy these people left this state was paid for in blood, sweat and tears and to have this measured so meagrely is heart breaking to those who have survived and insulting to the families of those who didn’t."
ALSWA will be encouraging people to continue down the path of litigation and not settle for anything less than they are entitled to. Minister Collier has said that he hopes no-one will pursue the path of litigation, and "...just accept the offer and move on."
“It’s a disgraceful and insulting offer and will not deter ALSWA from seeking legal advice about taking action against the state,” said Mr. Eggington.
Director of the Kimberley Aboriginal Stolen Generation corporation, Mark bin Bakar said that the government's offer was too narrow, excluded many peoples who are entitled to claim and that the amount is an insult.
Broome-based Nikyina advocate, Sofia Mirniyinna said descendents had rights, "The government needs to be challenged in Court. Descendents of workers who had died and those who worked at private pastoral stations for no wages would not be eligible to claim and this is wrong, the laws were wrong and compensation can be sought. The whole 6 month $2,000 offer by Collier and Barnett will be their undoing in a High Court, no reasonably-minded judge will allow that stain on their record in this day and age."
She said excluding payments to descendents when the majority of affected people had already died was “disgusting, cruel, mean-spirited, just bloody greedy” and would cause more trauma to families.
After waiting years to be repaid for her decades of hard work, 83-year-old Carnarvon woman Alice Moncrieff, does not know what the way forward is and she is bewildered about whether she is even eligible to make a claim.
Mrs Moncrief was only 13 when she started working at pastoral stations in 1939. She was never paid a cent for her labours and has no records to back up her claim which is not untypical for many of the claimants and indicative of the second rate citizenry they endured at the time.
“It is very disappointing, but I suppose there is nothing much I can do,” said Mrs Moncrief.
Phil Moncrief's struggle
The Stolen Wages campaigns are struggling in the finding of justice for families of those long gone and for those with little time left on this earth.
From WA, Yamatji Phil Moncrief said, "(These are) simple cut and dried cases. A social justice run up the mountain of corruption is what it is - it does not get much easier than to get the justice done here." However, the Stolen wages remain stolen for far too many people, their families and/or their descendants.
From 1890 to 1985, state and federal governments did not pay the wages and entitlements of Aboriginal peoples who were under their control - and these were wages much less than a non-Aboriginal person would earn for equivalent work. During this period, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were controlled by various 'Protection Acts'.
Apart from some minor payments - 'pocket money' - the wages were sent to the relevant department, such as the department of Native Affairs, who managed the money 'for the benefit of the wage earners'.
Historians say that Queensland owes half a billion dollars in stolen wages, NSW 70 million dollars - every state and territory has monies owed and the repayment schemes are a fraction of these and/or not happening. Queensland's repayment scheme would equate to compensation payments equal to 3 cents for each working hour for Aboriginal folk who had wages withheld.
In 2008 the West Australian state government launched a taskforce to investigate Stolen Wages.
Mr Moncrief's family continues to endure the relentless wait for a sliver of justice however the government is failing to heed the call for some long overdue action, he said.
WA Aboriginal Legal Services CEO Dennis Eggington said that thousands of Aboriginal people helped create the wealth of WA but had their wages stolen. "It is disgraceful that the Barnett government has still not responded to recommendations from the 'Stolen Wages Taskforce Report', and is yet another example of a government which is motivated more by profits than by people," said Mr Eggington.
"Much of the wealth of this state has been made off the backs of hard working Aboriginal men and women. For the state government to continue to deny our people what is legitimately owed is cruel and heartless," he said.
"If only our cries for justice could be heard above the din of the parliamentary dining room. Aboriginal people deserve more than the crumbs off the table of the privileged. After all, it was from our land, our sweat and our oppression that this bread was baked."
Mr Eggington said that if the government fails to address the historical theft of wages the governments since should be judged as accessories after the fact. "After all, in the eyes of the law, are we not all equal?"
Mr Moncrief said that Aboriginal persons well placed in positions of power are not doing enough for those long gone and for their descendants. He said, "Can you imagine the outcry if Julia Gillard said, 'okay, next Thursday, everybody must go to work, but Treasury will be keeping your wages for that one day.' You would not hear the end of it - that is one day, however our people had this happen to them for twenty years and more."
Questions have been emailed to the Barnett government, to the federal government and to the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples on their position and the next steps. The Australian Greens Senator, Rachel Siewert, has confirmed to Mr Moncrief she will explore his family's predicament with the WA state government.
"It has been a fruitless task trying to get some support. One can only bare so much. This is not an issue that can be addressed by an Apology and requires payment - in cold hard cash, the cash that was stolen by WA governments off decent Aboriginal workers and which has directly caused the chasm of economic imbalance between black and white people in this state," said Mr Moncrief.
"The Barnett government is holding on to the cash and the detailed report... they are hoping the issue will go away and possibly for all the old workers to finally die off. You cannot pay wages to dead people," he said.
"Our people need the help of those who can help, and they need it soon. They are dying as we speak."
Mark Bin Bakar slams the offer
Minister Peter Collier says they have to prove their claim and must be born before 1958
History of Stolen Wages
WA's Stolen Wages offer 'heartless'
The 6PR radio interview with Minister Peter Collier and host Paul Murray on the offer (a must listen!)
TOP IMAGE BY PHILL MONCRIEF