For decades they laboured as stockmen, farmhands, and domestic workers in the Northern Territory with minimal or no pay but Indigenous workers and their descendants have today filed a landmark class action to recoup their stolen wages.
The group is seeking compensation from the Commonwealth of Australia for lost income between 1933 and 1978, when First Nations people were denied basic rights and entitlements under so-called protective legislation.
Head of Class Actions at Shine Lawyers, Jan Saddler, said the Commonwealth used its powers under the Aboriginal Ordinance, Welfare Ordinance, and Employment Ordinance acts to move the money owed to workers into trust accounts, but the funds were never released in full if at all.
“Under these discriminatory laws, the Commonwealth got away with robbing Indigenous Australians of their hard-earned wages, meaning those who were already separated from their families entered a vicious cycle of poverty that was preventable,” Ms Saddler said.
The action filed late Thursday in the Federal Court alleges workers toiled in harsh conditions akin to slavery, often in return for food rations rather than wages.
“This case is as much about acknowledging the pain historic policies have inflicted on Indigenous Australians as it is about compensation,” Ms Saddler said.
“Rather than sweeping this injustice under the rug, we must address the mistakes of the past if we’re to have any chance of a brighter future.”
Thomas Conway was 11-years-old when he was removed from his family and sent to work on Alexandria Station.
“I worked on water bores or in the timber yard or stock yard. You got up at six o’clock in the morning and knock-off was at six o’clock at night,” Mr Conway said.
“There was no money. Just working for the white man. When Gough Whitlam gave us land rights, we walked free, back to country, and never went back,” he said.
Aboriginal leader and Director of Litigation Lending Services (LLS), which is funding the class action, Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO, said it’s time the issue of stolen wages was addressed.
“Australians expect a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and it’s embarrassing the Commonwealth has not already acted to resolve this injustice,” Mr Mundine said.
“We are proud to serve a pathway to justice for these First Nations people whose efforts built our great nation.”
Anyone subject to the relevant legislation who had their wages stolen is eligible to join the class action, including descendants of deceased workers and their estates.
David Lewis | Senior Media Advisor | [email protected] | 0433 396 272
Shine Lawyers has grown to become one of Australia’s largest compensation law firms with over 700 staff in almost 40 offices across Australia and New Zealand. For nearly 40 years, we have helped thousands of Australians to right wrong by following our core values: always stand up for the little guy, be ahead of the pack, and dare to be different.
For more information visit www.shine.com.au or phone 13 11 99.
The following people are available for media interviews:
- Jan Saddler, Head of Class Actions, Shine Lawyers
- Tristan Gaven, Senior Associate, Shine Lawyers
- Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO, Non-Executive Director, Litigation Lending Services
- Stephen Conrad, CEO, Litigation Lending Services
LLS CEO Stephen Conrad said the case follows similar legal challenges over stolen wages in Queensland and Western Australia.
“Our priority in all of these class actions is to empower First Nations people to seek justice through the courts to right the past wrongs they and their ancestors endured,” Mr Conrad said.
“We look forward to seeing a resolution and the opportunity to provide access to justice for this deserving group.”
LLS Chairman, Shaun Bonett, said this blight on our history continued to impact Australia’s standing in the world.
“These proceedings represent the last opportunity for Australia to restore its international credibility for its shameful past and violation of human rights, and to embrace a much-needed process of reconciliation.”
LLS is an Australasian provider of disputes financing. Since 1999, LLS have been pioneers in litigation funding. Over this time, we have brought together our breadth of knowledge and depth of financial resources to fund commercial and insolvency claims, through to large-scale class action matters. Further information can be found at www.litigationlending.com.au