ANU lawyer fights for stolen wages

Judy Harrison

Many Australian’s are aware of the tragic injustice of the Stolen Generations but few will be familiar with the scandal of the stolen wages.

For years Aboriginal station workers in Western Australia have been seeking compensation for, in some cases, decades of unpaid labour. 

The surviving workers and stockmen have found an ally in Kununurra-based ANU lawyer Judy Harrison who wants the government to negotiate a reparation scheme with the workers.

Between the early 1900s and 1972, men, women and children worked from dawn until dusk for nothing more than tea, sugar, tobacco or cake and a swag for the night, without a wage – many treated very poorly by their white masters.

In 2012, the West Australian Government agreed to pay 1,200 claimants just $2,000 each in compensation.  While many would settle for a formal recognition for the contribution they made to West Australia’s agricultural industries and a formal apology, the amount of money on offer was offensive.

It’s a story that in many ways intersects with the Stolen Generations, because many of the children working on the stations had been taken from their families.

In a recent co-authored essay published in the Griffith Review titled Finger Money, Judy Harrison examines the issue in depth and compares the Western Australian Government’s response to how other countries have successfully negotiated reparation schemes acceptable to all parties.

A reminder of how hard the fight for recognition will be and the broader issues facing Aboriginal rights in the state lies in the last sentence of the essay: “Western Australia remains the only mainland state that does not recognise Aboriginal people in its constitution.”

Listen to a ABC Radio National report title: WA's stolen wages shame on Sunday Extra, 6 September 2015

Judy Harrison

Honorary Senior Lecturer

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  Director, GDLP/Page Contact:  Program Coordinator, GDLP