Stolen Wages Timeline
Aboriginal people did not receive equal wages as late as 1986. Explore the events that led to a government apology, a wages reparation scheme and a senate committee.
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Under the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (and subsequent laws until the 1970s), the Queensland government controls the wages and savings of Aboriginal Queenslanders working under these acts.
Aboriginal pastoral wages are 66% of the wages for white workers.
Federal law for family endowment excludes Aboriginal people and instead payments go to the Aborigines Protection Board. Aboriginal people are denied maternity allowance and old age pension.
The Aborigines Welfare Fund is set up "for the general benefit of Aboriginal people". The fund received income from government-operated retail stores, child endowment benefits and Aboriginal wages. Until 1966 a compulsory deduction from Aboriginal peoples' wages was transferred to the fund.
An investigation shows Aboriginal people on Lord Vestey’s Northern Territory cattle station are getting poor rations, inadequate housing, water and sanitation facilities and are paid less than the five shillings a day minimum wage, which was set for Aboriginal people in a 1918 ordinance. European males receive two pounds and eight shillings (equal to 48 shillings) a week in 1945.
Aboriginal cattle station workers in the Port Hedland district of Western Australia strike for a pay increase. They are getting 10 shillings a week and are supplied with blankets. Aboriginal people then form a co-operative to mine alluvial wolfram which was successful.
In a progressive decision, the Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, earmarks all statutory royalties raised on Aboriginal reserves to be held in trust for Aboriginal people. All royalties raised on Aboriginal land are foregone by the Commonwealth and paid to a new institution, the Aboriginals Benefit Trust Account (ABTA).
The Palm Island workforce demonstrates and strikes against unfair wages and apartheid. In response, the Queensland government dispatches 20 police to put the rebellion down. At gunpoint, 7 men and their families are shipped off the island in leg irons and transported to settlements on the mainland.
The North Australian Workers' Union applies to the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to remove clauses which discriminate against Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory's pastoral award. Pastoralists meet this proposal with stiff opposition and manage to have a gradual wage adjustment implemented.
They argue a gradual increase would help Aboriginal people to 'adjust', but in fact it saves pastoralists an estimated 6 million dollars  over three years. The pastoralists also manage to convince the Commission to implement a 'slow worker clause' which would empower them to pay Aboriginal employees less than the standard wage when they were deemed to work less efficiently—which subsequently led to a lot of abuse of this clause.
The Conciliation and Arbitration Commission finds in favour of an application from the North Australian Workers’ Union for award wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers. The cattle industry reacts by phasing out Aboriginal labour and progressively evicting Aboriginal communities off the properties which are their traditional lands.
Aboriginal workers on reserves are paid 50% of the state minimum wage. Equal wages in the pastoral industry.
The New South Wales Aboriginal Welfare Board is abolished. The trust accounts are closed down and the remaining funds transferred to the Department of Youth and Community Services.
Forced control over wages and savings (bank books) ceases, although people have to request to be free from financial management.
The government is aware that underpaying reserve workers is illegal; the reserve wage is 72% of the state minimum.
The Queensland government pays equal wages to Aboriginal workers on missions.
Due to growing public concern and pressure from Indigenous people the Aborigines Welfare Fund is frozen, ending deductions to the fund.
According to historians, Native Affairs Department budgets were frequently topped up with money from the fund and, during the Depression, the government took more than $5 million to cover consolidated revenue deficits .
By the time the welfare fund was frozen, all that remained was about $5 million. Up to 2008 it has accumulated another $5.8 million in interest .
Seven Palm Island settlement workers win a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission case against the Queensland government for the deliberate underpayment of wages between 1975 (the date from which it was illegal to racially discriminate; Racial Discrimination Act 1975) and 1986 (when the Queensland government finally paid equal wages). The plaintiffs each won $7,000 compensation.
Forced by a growing number of complaints of racial discrimination the Queensland government agrees to make a $25 million payout to thousands of Indigenous people who were employed by previous governments on Aboriginal reserves and paid at wages under the award rate in the years 1975 to 1986. The individual payout is $7,000.
It was the first time any Queensland government openly admitted responsibility for discrimination and by far the largest settlement by any employer in respect of a discrimination matter.
I grew up hungry. My hunger and malnutrition were a direct result of my family not being paid their full wages and entitlements.— Yvonne Butler, admitted to hospital for malnutrition in 1957 
The Queensland Aboriginal & Islander Legal Service Secretariat (QAILSS) collects testimony from more than 2,000 people who want to take action against the government for missing, unpaid and underpaid monies.
A cabinet submission prepared by then Minister for Community Services, Faye Lo Po, reveals 69 million dollars were stolen from 11,500 Aboriginal people by successive NSW governments from 1900 to 1970. The submission was never tabled, but leaked to the National Indigenous Times newspaper in 2004.
View article sources (3)
'Black Words, White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929-1988', Adam Shoemaker, 2004, p.106
 [2a] 'State Government's dodgy deal', Courier-Mail, 30/11/2008
 Stolen Wages committee submissions, www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Completed_inquiries/2004-07/stolen_wages/submissions/sublist, submission #21