Stolen Wages — The multi generational financial abuse of Indigenous Australians
by Alex Andrews
NAIDOC is a week to celebrate our culture, land, community, and recognise the continuous efforts to thrive and survive in the face of 233 years of genocide. The theme for NAIDOC 2021 is Heal Country! I see this year’s theme as an invitation for all to deepen our connection to Country, to the community, to justice and to truth, through eco-social co-liberation. Where action in both environmental and social ecosystems are understood as interconnected, and interdependent for liberation. While we heal Country, we also need to heal from the financial abuse and unpaid servitude that occurred until 1972, known as Stolen Wages, and its impacts that are still being experienced by First Nations families today.
Since the start of the colonisation of these lands now known as ‘Australia’, the foundational structures and institutions of the colony have been formed and built upon the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. NAIDOC was born out of the resistance movement. In 1938, after many years of organising and protesting Invasion Day by Aboriginal political activist groups, the 26th of January was officially recognised as the Day of Mourning, and was the first and largest gathering for civil rights in the world. By 1955, this date was moved to the first week of July, and after the establishment of the NAIDOC committee, it eventually became the week-long celebration and protest we know it as today.
Back in the 1920s and 30s when First Nations political groups like the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association and the Australian Aborigines League were formed and fighting for change, the state governments were busy removing Aboriginal people from traditional lands. Aboriginal people were forced onto missions and stations to live in dehumanising conditions, off Country, disconnected from language, culture and people. Aboriginal people and children were forced to work in conditions we now recognise as slavery, often for decades. And people are still waiting for the money they earned, not from employers, but from the Government who stole it from them.
Legislation had been passed in different states from the late 1890s that gave Aboriginal protection boards and protection officers the ability to control the lives of Indigenous people. Families survived off barely edible rations. Children were stolen by the state from their mother’s arms. And those who were working on stations, farms and in white people’s homes as servants, weren’t able to access their pay.
Their wages were held by the Government in trust accounts. Although Aboriginal people were deemed fit enough to labour day and night to build the colony, our people weren’t considered able to handle our own money. After years of work, when people tried to collect their money, it wasn’t given – the Government had funnelled it elsewhere. A lot of those working people were children. A lot of these working people are still alive today. This period of Government sanctioned slave labour is known as Stolen Wages.
For thousands of Indigenous people during the late 1800s – 1970s, their work was unpaid and controlled by the State. There was forced servitude and state-controlled and organised child slave labour. This was during a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were legally considered flora and fauna.
It’s the unpaid labour of Indigenous people that built this country – built the railways, and roads worked on farms and ranches and brought up the children of settlers – under oppression by an invading Government. This is money the Government held and stole, and hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen wages are owed to Indigenous people and their families.
In a landmark case, the Queensland Government is paying back $190 million to 10,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and families.
While the outcome of this case is favourable to Indigenous people, $190 million is believed to be less than half of the amount the Queensland Government owes. Historian Dr Ros Kidd, a consultant to the class action, estimates the amount owed to be approximately $500 million. And that’s only in Queensland.
The pathway to settlement was disrupted by the Queensland Government in 2002 when they conned many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into accepting $4000 in exchange for waiving their legal rights, as a way for the Government to avoid a class action. Ultimately the Queensland Government could not avoid legal action. Currently, there are also class actions underway for people in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
This isn’t the only form of slave labour or payment denied to Indigenous peoples. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers who returned from war, after fighting for a colonising country that didn’t recognise them as humans in the constitution, weren’t given the same land allocations that were given to non-Indigenous soldiers. The white Australian soldiers were given land. The traditional custodians of the land re-entered a society that marginalised them and denied them basic human rights. These human rights are still being fought for today.
Today, we consider controlling or withholding access to money as financial abuse. However, many people still hold the racist belief that welfare payments made to Indigenous people are “free money” from the Government for “doing nothing”. This is not only untrue, in the context of our history, but it is also simply absurd.
It is difficult to quantify the damage stolen wages have had, and continue to have, on Indigenous people. The impact has reached thousands of families, including my own. Money and land haven’t been passed down through generations the way it was able to in non-Indigenous families. There are elders living below the poverty line, still waiting for the Government to hand over their money — money they rightfully earned in the worst possible circumstances. It highlights the fallacy of the ‘fair go’ “Australian value” when you understand that this country was built off slave labour, the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and illegal dispossession of land.
It was only in the 1970s that stolen wages legally ended, yet the money owed has never been returned. The State Governments are financially in debt to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That is before we consider the rent owed for 233 years of occupying our lands.
While stolen wages legally ended more than fifty years ago, it is still happening today. Just as the ripple effects of stolen wages continue on in many Indigenous families, the attitudes of Governments from the past are still very much present in the Governments of today. In communities in the Northern Territory, Queensland, the Kimberleys and South Australia, the Government is still financially controlling many Indigenous people, making it difficult to access welfare payments and secure housing. Cashless welfare cards which dictate where people can spend money, and what they can spend it on are being implemented and significantly impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in these communities.
This NAIDOC week, while we celebrate the theme of healing Country, let’s heal through connection to land, sea, skies and story. To educate ourselves and each other on the truths of ‘Australia’. Support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses, foundations, and entrepreneurs. We must commit to paying the rent individually, while we wait for the Government to finally hand over what has long been owed.
About the author
Kirilly Dawn is a proud Barkindji woman, born on Dharug country and living on Bundjalung land. Passionate about women reclaiming and remembering the sovereignty of their bodies and births, Kirilly is a birth doula, an advocate for birthing on country and incorporates her love of dance, somatic movement and meditation into her work. Believing in the ancient power of storytelling, Kirilly is joined as a regular presenter & producer on the Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond podcast, with a vision to share more Indigenous women’s voices, stories and experiences of childbirth and maternity care in Australia.