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Issue #1709      November 4, 2015

WA stolen pay shock

When the Western Australian government offered just $2,000 as compensation to Aboriginal workers who had their wages withheld for decades up until 1972, many thought it was another insult to Aboriginal people. The compensation was paid under the WA Stolen Wages Scheme from March to November 2012 and only people born before 1958 who lived on a mission or hostel and could show they had wages withheld were eligible to apply.

But one of the Aboriginal advisers to WA’s Stolen Wages Taskforce, Howard Riley, recently revealed to the ABC that the State Treasury had initially agreed to individual payouts of $78,000.

The taskforce’s report was released in 2008, yet the compensation scheme wasn’t introduced until 2012, and Riley also told the ABC’s Background Briefing program that it was shelved for four years because “they were waiting for the people to die ... 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”.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information by the Kimberley Community Legal Service and sent to the Koori Mail show the taskforce recommended to the Minister of Indigenous Affairs that a fund of $71.2 million to $101.2 million be set up. The total payment made under the 2012 scheme was $2.5 million.

The briefing note from the acting director of the Department of Indigenous Affairs to the Minister said: “While no amount of money can ever compensate for the past economic and personal impact of government control over individual people’s money, an individual ex-gratia common experience payment of $15,000 could be seen to comprise:

  • $10,000 is for the actuarial calculation of actual loss and is based on actuarial logic; and
  • $5,000 additional monetary compensation as an act of reconciliation to acknowledge the personal and family impacts beyond the actuarial calculation.”

An actuarial calculation is a mathematical model regarded as the best estimate based on available numerical and policy information.

The WA government has maintained that the difficulty in setting up any compensation scheme is a lack of surviving records to accurately demonstrate what happened to the money that was held in trust funds for Aboriginal people who were essentially rented out to work on pastoral stations.

But Steve Kinnane, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame (WA), whose grandmother Jesse Smith worked as a domestic servant, has been able to access her personal files.

He said the 350 pages document every aspect of her life from when she was raised on a mission and then incarcerated at Moore Creek Native Settlement and rented out as a domestic servant.

Those records (and others) show up to 75 percent of Aboriginal workers’ wages were held in government trust accounts and the remainder was paid to them as “pocket money or finger money”.

Mr Kinnane said the records show even the pocket money was not always forthcoming “depending on how well they’d behaved”. His grandmother’s files reveal money was denied when she wanted to buy clothes, was deducted to pay for bed and board (that was often greater than her wages) and was deducted for things like mandatory health checks and paying for police to escort her back to Moore Creek.

Mr Kinnane said actuarial calculations for individuals could be done based on the number of years they’d worked and the likely deductions made based on the records that do exist.

The Aboriginal Legal Service WA is currently considering a class action to try to address the compensation issue.

The 2008 Stolen Wages Taskforce report also made a number of other recommendations regarding injustices to Aboriginal people.

Koori Mail

Next article – Abbott’s rivers of blood

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