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Act of healing injustice – reparation for 10,000 Indigenous workers who had wages stolen

Future generations: “This is quite a significant step forward to healing divisions and creating a possibility for greater trust and respect.”

AN historic agreement to pay lost wages to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as an act of healing, has been welcomed by a Catholic human rights advocate. 

“This is quite a significant step forward to healing divisions and creating a possibility for greater trust and respect,” Archdiocese of Brisbane Catholic Justice and Peace Commission executive officer Peter Arndt said.

On July 9, the Queensland Government announced settlement of a class action on behalf of an estimated 10,000 Indigenous workers who had their wages stolen last century.

The settlement to the ageing workers or their descendants applies in Queensland but is expected to lead to flow-on lawsuits in New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Lead applicant, 77-year-old Hans Pearson took the Queensland Government to the Federal Court to claim wages he earned but did not receive.

His class action covered 1939 to 1972, when Mr Pearson and his fellow Indigenous workers – often working as stockmen or domestic workers – had their pay given to the state under the Protection Act.

He argued the State Government breached its duties as a trustee and fiduciary by withholding the wages.

Mr Arndt, who has followed the case over the past decade, said working for no wages, unlike the rest of the Queensland community meant Indigenous workers had been forced to live in poverty. 

“In 2019 we think things are so much better in terms of relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but when people are still waiting for just outcomes in terms of wages for the work that they’ve done it demonstrates how far we have to go,” he said.

“It underlines some Aboriginal people are still not trusting of non-Indigenous people, about how genuine they are about reconciliation.

“A lot of these people are in their older years and they don’t have much time to enjoy the fruits of their labours.”

Queensland Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Jackie Trad said the State Government “is committed to righting historic wrongs”.

In another step towards reconciliation Ms Trad announced the Government would press ahead with a treaty allowing Indigenous people a direct say on policies that affected them.

The treaty would aim to promote and support self-determination, truth-telling, local decision-making, and better life outcomes.

“It comes because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders are calling for a new relationship moving forward, where actions must speak louder than words,” Ms Trad said.

“We hope that this process goes some way to right the wrongs of the past and sets the foundation for a new and just relationship towards our shared future.

“In the coming weeks we will release a discussion paper to provide an opportunity for Queenslanders to have their say on this important journey.”

Mr Arndt said it was “wonderful to see” governments in Queensland and Victoria working towards treaties that “acknowledge the truth about the on-going and unbroken relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with this country”.

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