Apology for ‘shameful’ theft of Indigenous worker wages

Aaron Bunch and Neve Brissenden |

Lead applicant Mervyn Street has welcomed an apology to stolen wages survivors in WA.
Lead applicant Mervyn Street has welcomed an apology to stolen wages survivors in WA.

Thousands of Indigenous workers who were paid little or no wages for almost four decades under discriminatory state laws have finally won a formal apology from the West Australian government.

Premier Roger Cook said legislation and policies that were supposed to protect Aboriginal people resulted in hardship, exploitation and disadvantage, describing at as a “shameful part” of WA’s history.

“I apologise to Aboriginal men, women and children who worked … between 1936 and 1972, often for decades, for no pay or not enough pay,” he told the WA parliament on Tuesday.

“An apology does not change what happened. It cannot, but it recognises the importance an apology has as recognition and a move towards reconciliation and a step in a healing process.”

WA Premier Roger Cook
Roger Cook said the treatment of Aboriginal workers was a “blight on the legacy” of governments. (Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS)

Mr Cook said the historic laws controlled where Aboriginal people were allowed to work, travel and live.

“It also impacted on how much money they were paid, how they were paid and how they received their wages and entitlements,” he said.

Many Aboriginal people were forced to work long hours and they were often paid in rations, such as flour, sugar, tea and tobacco.

“Aboriginal men, women and children worked hard and made enormous contributions to the economic development of this state but they received only a fraction of their worth,” he said.

He said the treatment of Aboriginal workers was a “blight on the legacy of successive governments”.

“The fact that our laws facilitated these outcomes brings great shame,” Mr Cook said.

“The government of WA recognises those laws and policies were wrong and we acknowledge and apologise for the fact that those laws and policies caused great harm and disadvantage.”

He acknowledged people exploited during the period who were no longer alive and apologised to their descendants.

“We are sorry for the hurt and loss that your loved one suffered,” he said.

“Their strong shoulders carried the weight of their families and communities.”

Senior Gooniyandi elder Mervyn Street launched legal action in the Federal Court in 2020 on behalf of the surviving workers and their relatives.

Mervyn Street portrait
Elder Mervyn Street was instrumental in legal action on behalf of workers and their relatives. (Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS)

Mr Street was in state parliament for the premier’s formal apology on behalf of the WA people and emerged jubilant.

“I’m really happy to hear that,” the softly spoken award-winning artist, who started working as a cattle stockman when he was 14, told reporters.

The wages policy allowed the government to withhold up to 75 per cent of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander worker’s wage.

Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Tony Buti said it was based on a belief Aboriginal people were not worthy of equal rights.

“This was a shameful period of our history,” he said.

Mr Buti said the legacy of the laws continued with broad social and economic harm visible in the Aboriginal community.

The WA government settled the class action in early-November, with families and survivors set to be financially compensated.

The settlement is yet to be approved by the Federal Court, which will happen after eligible workers and their families are registered.

The court will also decide the exact amount payable to each worker or their family, though the WA government has agreed to a payout of up to $180.4 million, with each claimant eligible to receive $16,500.

Bringing Them Home and the WA Stolen Generations Aboriginal Corporation welcomed the apology but said the settlement was not enough.

Many of the workers were in the Kimberley region on pastoral stations and in institutions and missions.

Lawyer Vicky Antzoulatos said the apology was a significant step towards reconciliation for the Aboriginal men, women and children who worked under the policy “often under horrific conditions”.