North Queensland elders say stolen wages entitlements unfair, much lower than expected
Families of stolen wages victims in North Queensland have waited decades for their entitlements, but have been left devastated by the payouts and are questioning how they were calculated.
The Queensland Government settled a long-running stolen wages case for $190 million in 2019.
The entitlements are being distributed to more than 10,800 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for wages earned between 1939 and 1972.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images of people who have died.
Among the recipients is the mother of Francine George, an elder of the Kukatj tribe in Normanton.
Ms George’s mother died in 2017 at the age of 88.
She said her mother only received an entitlement of $12,000 for more than 40 years’ work on cattle stations in various domestic roles.
“They were not given any monies; they were not told how much monies they have made during that time,” Ms George said.
“They worked for rations: they worked for flour, sugar, syrup, tin meat and, if they smoked, cigarettes.
“They come into Normanton from those cattle properties and they were given, what we would refer to as a purchase order these days, to go to the shop and get supplies.
“During those times, they only ever came to town on special occasions like the Normanton races … and all the other times they worked.”
Ms George said the government had the means to calculate the hours her mother worked, but her entitlement was a lot less than expected.
“There are records within Queensland Government for a lot of people [who] worked during that era. How did they come to that calculation?” she said.
“We were shipped off to Palm Island to the dormitory so that our parents could work … that wasn’t a choice of our parents, that was a choice of the government.”
Townsville resident Hans Pearson led the class action.
Grant Thornton Australia was appointed as the administrator of the Stolen Wages Settlement Distribution Scheme.
The firm’s lawyer, Anthony Beven, said due to the lack of evidence and records of earnings, time passed and the death of many claimants, a methodology relying on anthropological evidence was used to determine the entitlements.
“The court said that the only way to do this in a fair way was to group people based on their age, whether they were Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, male, whether they were still living or deceased,” Mr Beven said.
“The court acknowledge that this isn’t a calculation of how much — in terms of wages and savings people may have been deprived — but it’s a way to try and allocate the money in a fair way.
“It was never intended to be a precise calculation of how many years people worked, how much their savings and wages had not been properly paid to them because that was just too difficult to prove.”
Men compensated more
Ms George said she was concerned that men who were part of the class action received more money than women.
“What we’re told is women will receive $12,000 and men will receive $15,000,” she said.
“It just doesn’t add up.”
Mr Beven said men were compensated more than women because they suffered greater deductions and withholdings, according to the evidence put before the court.
“The anthropological evidence, the historical records have indicated that men in particular were more heavily affected by the stolen wages practices,” he said.
“They [men] had more in terms of wages and savings withheld from them.
“The anthropological evidence and historical evidence that the court took into account determined that there should be a higher weighting towards males rather than females.
“It’s the best possible methodology that’s been developed over many years.”
The $190 million settlement was Australia’s fifth-largest class action settlement and the largest-ever settlement involving Indigenous people outside native title claims.
But Ms George said claimants’ entitlements were chewed up by the $53 million in litigation costs.
“The buckets of money have dropped considerably,” she said.
“It’s not $190 million that the people are sharing in, it’s more like $120 million or even less and that’s going out to 11,000 to 20,000 people.”
The class action was funded by litigation funder Litigation Lending Services, which was entitled to a slice of the settlement under the Federal Court ruling.
“If they hadn’t provided that funding, this litigation may never have been put before the courts and resolved in a settlement as it has been,” Mr Beven said.
Legal fees associated with the Stolen Wages Settlement Distribution Scheme were also deducted from the settlement amount.
Grandchildren were not eligible to register for the scheme because it fell outside of the requirement of a “direct family connection”.
Ms George said it had left many descendants still questioning the whereabouts of their grandparents’ stolen wages.
“Where’s our grandparents’ money? Where’s our great-grandparents’ money?” she said.
“I know a lot of people are not happy, around the Gulf and down in Mount Isa and over in Cairns, with how it’s been rolled out.”