Stolen wages

Repaying Stolen Wages

Australian governments are reluctant to take on responsibility for the stolen wages, fearing millions of dollars of reparations.

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Selected statistics

Money offered in 2002 by the Queensland government as reparation for stolen wages.
Amount owed to Aboriginal people by the NSW government .
Wages owed by the Queensland government, according to historians .
Amount the Queensland government saved by not paying equal wages to Aboriginal people between 1975 and 1986 .
Approximate amount of wages withheld by the Western Australian government between 1905 and 1972 .

Would you accept this?

"Imagine that the government instructs your employer to withhold four-fifths of your pay, over and above the normal tax deducted, ordering the money be forwarded to a government-administered account.

You query this but are told what the government is doing is lawful and that your money is to be spent in ways that will further your welfare.

Where you live, schools are run down and the public health and housing services are low-grade and deteriorating. But despite all the money you and others are handing over, no improvements are made to your services and infrastructure.

It transpires the money is being spent on projects, some public infrastructure, some not, thousands of kilometres away.

Years pass before the government suddenly stops taking your money. It says it got things wrong. It says sorry.

However, it refuses to pay back to you what was taken or even give you back your portion of what's left in the so-called welfare fund.

Instead today's Government offers you a tiny amount in 'reparation' and announces the leftover money is to go into an education scholarship fund that, if your child is one of the lucky few, may assist you to send your child hundreds of kilometres away to school.

You try to take legal action to recover your money, but the Government says, whoops, its records are incomplete, missing, washed away in floods, burned or eaten by the cat and so you can't prove that it really did take your money, or as much as you say it took. So, how would you feel if all this happened to you?"

This happened to Indigenous people all over Australia. It's called the stolen wages.


77-year-old identical twins Arthur and Paul Ahwang had worked on the same job at the same time. While Paul had been paid some of his stolen wages claim his brother had received nothing .

Stolen wages repayment schemes in Australia

Some states already have set up repayment schemes for the wages they took from Aboriginal people. Other states are still 'investigating' the issue.

Aboriginal people claim that repayment schemes have not been properly promoted and that administrative processes are inadequate, leading to a low number of successful applicants .

New South Wales

The NSW government has apologised for practices of previous governments, and in 2004 established the Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme (ATFRS) to fully reimburse Aboriginal stolen wages to claimants for wages paid between 1900 and 1969, indexed to the current dollar value, and tax free. It was an evidence-based scheme and not a compensation scheme which limited applicants to those who could track down records that proved they had received monies.

The NSW government did not cap repayments or demand to surrender legal rights, and both direct and descendant claimants were eligible to apply for stolen wages repayments until 31 March 2009. The ATFRS continued to operate until 30 June 2010 to allow claims to be processed. But by January 2008 only about 15% of the more than 660 claims had been successful.

Taking into account interest and inflation, for every $100 owed in stolen wages the government committed to repay $3,521 in 2005.

By 30 June 2009 the ATFRS had registered 8,595 claimants which include direct claimants (living people) and people who made descendant claims (on behalf of their deceased relatives). Up to December 2007 it had only paid out one-ninth of the estimated debt, but after the scheme closed a total of $12.9 million had been repaid.

In April 2009 the Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme was changed so that a panel can now recommend lump-sum repayments of up to A$11,000 and take into account non-documentary and oral evidence when considering applications.


Queensland, by contrast, on 9 May 2002 just offered $2,000 to $4,000 in compensation for a lifetime of work. On top of this it required Aboriginal people to waive their legal right to further compensation.


$4,000 — The compensation paid to four workers each who were underpaid for five years by their employer in 2008 .

Many stolen wages victims dismissed the offer out of disgust, while others missed the application deadline. The government established the Indigenous Wages and Savings Reparations Scheme (IWSR) and set aside $55.4 million dollars. Little more than a third of these was distributed, and 37 per cent of claims were rejected because of a lack of evidence or the comparative youth of the applicant .

In the first round of payouts in 2007, about $19.5 million were paid to 5,553 eligible claimants , 4,211 of which received $4,000 and 1,342 receiving $2,000 . More than 3,200 people who applied for payments were refused because government records did not exist to back their claim.

Unions have criticised the government's decision to only accept government records as proof that a worker's wages were stolen. Such records are "notoriously incomplete", denying a significant number of otherwise eligible workers .

On November 25th, 2008, the government of Queensland launched the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Foundation (QATSIF). The Public Trustee of Queensland holds more than $15 million from the IWSR Scheme in perpetuity, a move strongly opposed by Aboriginal organisations, even possible recipients of the foundation's monies . From the interest only from these funds, QATSIF provided scholarships to support almost 2,300 Aboriginal students in 2016 from across all Queensland school sectors to complete their senior schooling, a huge increase from the first target in 2008, about 100 scholarships a year.

The submissions to the stolen wages compensation scheme are an historic gold mine. Aboriginal people tell their stories first-hand, and some submissions include copies of historic documents such as applications for exemption under the Aboriginal Protection Act.

Colin Graham

Snippet from Colin Graham's story.

Colin Graham was born in 1947. He started work aged nine. Read about his difficult life, hard work, lack of education, racism and how Africa's apartheid system modelled Queensland's Aboriginal Protection Act .

Colin's story

Western Australia

In 2008 the government of Western Australia announced an investigation into the nature and extent of the stolen wages and established a taskforce which produced the Reconciling the Past report.

Becoming the third state to offer compensation, Western Australia in March 2012 offered a maximum of $2,000 to Aboriginal people who had their wages stolen , an offer that received much criticism.

Applicants for the compensation had to prove they lived in a government Native Welfare settlement and were subject to income control. However, the government did not open its archives for research and limited the application period to 6 months.

The government justified the amount with the fact that it had to "ascertain an appropriate amount... from records that don't exist" . However, senior researcher Steve Kinnane finds there is "plenty of evidence--including 15,000 personal files--that clearly indicates exactly how wages were spent, on what, and how much went into trust accounts". The idea of not enough information went against the government's own report, Mr Kinnane said .

How can any minister of the Crown actually believe that $2000 will in some way make reparation for the injustices done to people who had 75% of their wages stolen?

— Robin Chapple, Greens MLC

These people worked all of their lives... and they're being offered probably a fortnight's pay for an entire lifetime of work.

— Dennis Eggington, Aboriginal Legal Service Western Australia

Other states

All other state and territory governments are "looking into the issue" of stolen wages and have not yet taken action at the time of writing.

Would you work for 3 cents per hour?

Let's do the math with Queensland's compensation:

  • Our Aboriginal person worked from 15 (when they left the mission) to 65 (taking into account their lower life expectancy).
  • We assume they worked 8 hours a day (many worked far more, see quote below).
  • We calculate 340 working days a year (which were most likely 365 days).

$4,000 / ((65 years - 15 years) * 8 hours * 340 days) = $0.029/h.

This gives us an hourly rate of 3 cents. And we haven't even thought about interest.

A typical day started between 6 and 6.30 in the morning and finished between 8 and 8.30 at night. [...] I was expected to work everyday, seven days a week.

— Lesley Williams (then aged 17)

It seems that, because these were Aboriginal accounts, the government thinks it can get away with throwing crumbs to people and pretending that it's final.

— Dr Rosalind Kidd, historian


View article sources (22)

[1] 'Rewind' program on ABC, 17 October 2004
[2] Koori Mail 406, 'Stolen Wages lifeline', p.1
[3] 'Under award wages claim',
[4] 'Long fight for stolen wages for Western Australia's Aboriginal stockmen and women', ABC 27/7/2015
[5] 'State Government's dodgy deal', Courier-Mail, 30/11/2008
[6] 'Stolen pay fears raised', Koori Mail 513 p.29
[7] [7a] 'Right decision, says NSWALC', Koori Mail 442 p.6
[8] 'Stolen wages deadline', Koori Mail 430 p.10
[9] Guidelines for the Administration of the NSW Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme, February 2006
[10] Department of Premier and Cabinet Annual Report 2008-09, p.17
[11] 'Give us back our money', Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 2007
[12] Department of Premier and Cabinet Annual Report 2011-12, p.19
[13] '$4000 bonus', SMH 6/1/2009
[14] Koori Mail 406, loc. cit., p.6
[15] [15a] 'Unions take up Qld wage fight', Koori Mail 433 p.7
[16] 'Fund sparks legal threat', Koori Mail 423 p.5
[17] 'Rocky start for Qld fund', Koori Mail 440 p.9
[18] Stolen Wages committee submissions,, submission #61
[19] [19a] 'Wages offer anger', Koori Mail 523 p.12
[20] [20a] [20b] 'WA $2000 offer 'is a slap in the face'', Koori Mail 522 p.8
[21] Stolen Wages committee submissions, loc. cit., submission #82
[22] 'New anger at inaction over wages', Koori Mail 484 p.26

Cite this page

Korff, J 2020, Repaying Stolen Wages, <>, retrieved 26 May 2024

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