‘Still waiting for justice’ Aboriginal stolen wages in Western Australia
‘Still waiting for justice’ Aboriginal stolen wages in Western Australia

From 1905 until 1972, thousands of Aboriginal workers in Western Australia had their wages stolen and placed in trust accounts operated by the state government, never to be seen again.

In 2012 – four years after a WA taskforce recommended official recognition of the theft, an apology and payment to those owed – the Liberal government introduced a stolen wages reparation scheme that paid a miserly $2,000 to just some of those whose wages had been stolen.

Steve Kinnane, a Marda Marda (mixed-blood) man from Miriwoong Country, and a senior researcher at the Nulungu Research Institute, Notre Dame University, spoke to Red Flag about the Aboriginal workers and their families still waiting for justice. Kinnane’s grandmother Jessie Argyle, the subject of Kinnane’s award-winning book, Shadow Lines, was one of thousands of Aboriginal domestic workers who had between half and three-quarters of their wages stolen. “The pittance she received was finger money”, Kinnane explained.

Kinnane first became aware that the state government held a vast collection of files on Aboriginal people in WA, including his grandmother, after visiting the Department of Aboriginal Affairs as a bike courier. “In the late 1980s, I began tracking the stories of people who had been removed from stations and placed in the care of government settlements and missions”, Kinnane said. “These were people who had worked all their lives for little or no pay.”

Kinnane’s work initially focused on child removals, but, over time, a fuller picture emerged of the systematic control of Aboriginal people imposed by the Aborigines Act 1905 and successor legislation, which continued until 1972. In 1990, he obtained Argyle’s file, which, at 308 pages, provided a vast dossier of archived correspondence on her life from the 1920s until the 1950s. Working with historian Lauren Marsh, Kinnane assisted other family members of the Stolen Generations to acquire their files and, with the recording of oral testimonies, developed a picture of decades of institutional cruelty inflicted on the state’s Indigenous people.

The 1905 act deemed the “chief protector” to be the legal guardian of all “half-caste” Aboriginal children. In 1906, Argyle and her brother Thomas Bropho, aged just five and six, were removed by police from their mother at Argyle Station in the east Kimberley. “They were chained at the neck, and force-marched some 240 kilometres from Argyle police station to Wyndham”, Kinnane explained. “From there they were transported by ship to Fremantle.”

Jessie spent her next 13 years at the Swan Native and Half-Caste Mission, an Anglican-run “reform” school that trained her, and many other Aboriginal girls, for a life of domestic servitude. Over the subsequent decade she worked in both Perth and the south-west.

“Initially, Jessie was sent to work at Bridgetown”, Kinnane said. “The [Aborigines] department took between half and three-quarters of her wages.”

Like many Aboriginal people, Jessie suffered from sugar diabetes, and developed a bone disease in her leg. “She was told that she would have to see the government doctor, who was based in Perth”, Kinnane explained. “She had to give up her employment for that time, travel by train to Perth, and stay at the East Perth Girls’ Home, which was the only place in Perth where Aboriginal women were allowed to stay.”

Each train journey, the doctor’s visit and her accommodation were paid for out of wages held in her trust account. “Board at East Perth Girls’ home cost more than her weekly wage,” Kinnane told Red Flag. “And each time she travelled, she had to be accompanied by a police officer at her own expense.”

Trust accounts, established under the 1905 act and controlled by the chief protector, were just one of the mechanisms for state control over Aboriginal people. A permit system controlled the employment of Aboriginal labour, but made no provision for minimum wages, only rations.

In 1915, A.O. Neville was appointed chief protector. Neville presided over a policy of assimilation, which included the rounding up of “half-caste” Aboriginal children and their internment in government-run settlements, including Carrolup, in the state’s south-west, and Moore River, 135 kilometres north of Perth.

I asked Kinnane if the government settlements served a different function from the church-run missions. “They were essentially the same”, he responded. While church missions had taken in orphaned white children also, their purpose was to train a reservoir of cheap Aboriginal domestic and farm labour.

The West Australian reported in 1928 that Aboriginal girls working in the sewing room at Moore River Native Settlement were producing 3,500 garments a year for no pay.

In 1934, the Moseley Royal Commission, tasked with investigating the condition and treatment of the state’s Aboriginal population, received submissions detailing accusations of slavery, child abuse and mistreatment at Moore River, which housed more than 500 Aboriginal people in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions.

Moseley described the settlement’s dormitories as “vermin ridden to an extent which I suspect makes eradication impossible”. Moseley also condemned the “barbarous treatment” of incarcerating inmates in a shed, known as “the boob”, for up to 14 days as punishment.

By the end of 1934, 164 people had died on Neville’s watch, including 75 children younger than 15 years of age. By 1952, when the government handed control of the settlement to the Methodist Church, 346 deaths had been recorded, 42 percent of which were children under the age of 6.

In 1936, despite the testimony heard by the commission, amendments to the 1905 act gave Neville (now the commissioner for native affairs) even more powers, including legal guardianship over all Aboriginal children up to the age of 21. “In reality, his department exercised control over Aboriginal people for their whole lives”, explained Kinnane.

Neville now had the power to approve or disapprove of all “native” marriages and could take legal action against whites or “half-castes” for associating with Blacks. Aboriginal reserves became off limits to whites, and “natives” could enter the Perth CBD only if they held a work permit  and only during daylight hours.

Neville’s control was met with resistance. In the late 1920s, the Native Union, led by Nyoongar man William Harris, campaigned against the legislative controls imposed on mixed-blood Aboriginal people and to improve their poor living conditions on the reserves and settlements. In the 1930s, Harris’ legacy was carried on by activists such as Thomas Bropho, Helena Murphy and Bill Bodney, who rallied on the Perth Esplanade to speak out against inequality.

In the postwar years, a new determination emerged to end the cruelty. In 1946, Aboriginal workers across the Pilbara walked off cattle stations to demand a living wage. The following year, the Coolbaroo League established a dance club in East Perth, just outside the city’s prohibited area. In the face of frequent harassment from the state police, the club became an important meeting point for the urban Indigenous community.

In 1954, the prohibition on Aboriginal people entering the CBD ended and desegregation was slowly instituted in the face of a rising civil rights movement. However, Aboriginal workers continued to work in often slavery-like conditions, while cattle property owners and the state’s new mining tycoons reaped the benefits.

Not only wages, but also social security payments were denied. Aboriginal pensions, maternity payments and child endowments were handed over to pastoral stations and church institutions.

Actuarial studies undertaken by a Perth consultancy firm on behalf of the Stolen Wages Taskforce, obtained under freedom of information requests by the Kimberley Community Legal Service, give some measure of the extent of the theft. Applying a long term bond rate, Barton Consultancy estimated that, in today’s terms, more than $63 million is owed to Aboriginal workers in unpaid wages from Moore River alone.

In 2008, just before Labor lost office in WA, the taskforce submitted its recommendations to the state government. Taking into account only wages accrued after 1951, and only a maximum of seven years of unpaid wages per individual, the Taskforce recommended a “common experience” payment of $10,000 per claimant. Based on an estimate of between 1,500 and 3,000 Aboriginal workers still living who had wages stolen, the taskforce estimated compensation claims would cost the state $30 million.

The taskforce further recommended a “community experience fund” of $30 million be established in lieu of payment to Aboriginal workers who had since died.

The incoming Liberal government refused to release the report for another four years. “They waited for the people to die”, taskforce employee and whistleblower Howard Riley told ABC’s Background Briefing on 6 September. “They wanted those people to die so that the state coffers weren’t being emptied out on Black people whose wages they deserved to have back.”

In 2012, Aboriginal affairs minister Peter Collier told state parliament that “due to the complexity of trust accounts in Western Australia and the significant lack of surviving records”, it was not possible to determine the “true value or full impact of any compensation”. Just $2,000 was offered to individual claimants. And tight restrictions resulted in hundreds of claims being rejected.

Which of the taskforce’s recommendations have since been implemented? “The parliament passed legislation recognising Aboriginal people as the state’s first peoples, but that’s been it”, said Kinnane. “And that was due to the effort of [Labor MP for the Kimberley] Josie Farrer.”

“We are still waiting for justice.”

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