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NT Stolen Wages Class Action commences

10 June 2021

Class Actions

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 at Alexandria Station. 

“I worked on water bores or in the timber yard or stockyard. 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 the 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.

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