16 November 2023

Momentous settlement reached for Indigenous stolen wages class action against WA government

| James Day
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Indigenous children branding cattle in a small pen with wooden fences on a black and white image.

Affected Indigenous workers were employed in many different industries and held roles such as stockmen, farm hands, laundry assistants, kitchen hands, labourers and domestic workers. Shown above are some Indigenous Children branding cattle at Moola Bulla station in 1910. Photo: Battye Library.

A settlement agreement has been reached for a landmark class action against the Western Australian Government regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who worked in the state for little or no wages between 1936 and 1972.

The result still waiting for court approval will have the state government pay up to $180.4 million to eligible Aboriginal workers or their surviving spouses and children in recognition of the legislation used to control their employment and wages.

Helping fund the Shine Lawyers prosecution is Litigation Lending Services (LLS), which is also behind two ongoing class actions against the Northern Territory Government for stolen wages and the stolen generation. In 2019, the two organisations achieved a $190 million settlement in a class action led by claimant Hans Pearson, the uncle of prominent Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, which was against the State of Queensland for Indigenous people subject to the ‘Protection Acts’ between 1939 to 1972.

While a trial was due to commence on 16 October, it has since been vacated to allow each party to finalise their documentation. According to Shine Lawyers, the settlement approval hearing is likely to be held in mid-2024, after a series of community information sessions are held throughout WA and a registration process for group members who wish to make a claim.

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“Today is a victory for the many thousands of First Nations people we represent,” said Shine Lawyers’ Joint Head of Class Actions Vicky Antzoulatos. “Workers and their descendants suffered inter-generational disadvantage because of the legislation in place in the State of Western Australia over many decades which directly affected the lives and livelihoods of Aboriginal people.

“We were privileged to share in their stories, some of which the Court also heard in moving testimony from witnesses during evidence preservation hearings last year.

“Financial compensation is one way to acknowledge the suffering of First Nations people. It doesn’t correct the past but offers a way forward.

“We acknowledge the Western Australian Government’s efforts in seeking to correct a historical wrong and improve reconciliation with the State’s Aboriginal population through this class action. Hopefully, greater understanding of the experiences of Aboriginal people in Western Australia during this sad earlier time in history is also a lasting legacy of this class action.”

The historical policies running parallel to systems controlling the stolen generation are estimated to have affected tens of thousands working Indigenous peoples, especially in the Kimberley region on pastoral stations and inside Native Institutions.

In 2006, an inquiry into stolen wages was referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee. Four years later, they provided a response bearing six recommendations for the Commonwealth and state governments to act on as part of national reconciliation.

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While the policies were implemented in the late 1800s, eligible claimants must have worked or had their property controlled between 11 December 1936 and 9 June 1972. You can also claim if you are representing an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander family member who qualifies but has since passed away.

“This settlement is recognition of the wrongs of the past,” said Aboriginal Affairs Minister Dr Tony Buti. “Throughout the process, the WA Government has worked with the applicants to resolve the proceeding in a respectful and cooperative way.

“This settlement is also an opportunity to acknowledge the valuable contributions that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have made to our State, both past and present.”

Estimates show millions in stolen or unpaid wages could be owed, but the WA government has settled on paying $16,500 to each eligible claimant through an administered fund totalling $165 million. More than 10,000 eligible claimants could be paid with that amount, and there’s an additional $15.4 million set aside for the applicant’s legal costs.

Following the court’s approval of the registration process, yet to be led by Shine Lawyers, the Federal court will determine how much each eligible claimant will receive, depending on the number approved and other deductions. Anyone who wishes to submit a claim should contact Shine Lawyers on [email protected] or can register online.

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