Returning stolen wages 

Returning stolen wages 

We worked with Aboriginal people and organisations to recover wages, allowances and pensions ‘held on trust’ by the NSW Government for decades.  

Until 1969, employers systematically withheld wages and entitlements from Aboriginal people, paying them instead to the Aborigines Protection Board.  

Many Aboriginal ‘apprentices’ (children as young as 14) had over 80% of their wage paid to the Board and its successor, the Aborigines Welfare Board. This money was meant to be paid out to them when they turned 21 but, in most cases, it was not. The impact of these stolen wages was vast – contributing to other injustices including child removals and forcible rehousing. 

The Government resisted calls to reimburse these funds. As Debra Jopson wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2004: ‘The Government’s seven decades of taking money was followed by three decades of hanging onto it.’ 

By 2001, an estimated $69 million was owed by the NSW Government to more than 10,000 Aboriginal people and their descendants. Aboriginal campaigners Les Ridgeway and Marjorie Woodrow maintained a long campaign to recover money owed, but the issue was largely unknown among non-Aboriginal people.  

Putting stolen wages on the agenda 

The Centre (then PIAC) got involved in 2003 when a 78-year-old Aboriginal woman requested legal help to recover child endowment payments. She believed payments she was entitled to had been placed into a government-controlled trust account when she was younger, but never paid out.   

Using Freedom of Information, we obtained documents from the NSW Department of Community Services (DoCS), showing a scheme to repay the money owed was considered as early as 1998. Further details came to light in 2004, when a Cabinet Minute from 2001 was published in the National Indigenous Times, outlining a proposal to repay money owed at fair value that had not been implemented.  

This kickstarted a public campaign pressuring the NSW Government to act. Alongside Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR), the Indigenous Law Centre, the Women’s Law Centre and Aboriginal campaigners, we advocated for a scheme to pay Aboriginal people what they were owed. We met with the Director-General of DoCS and staff of the Minister to argue for a repayment scheme.  

NSW Premier Bob Carr issued a formal apology to Aboriginal people in March 2004 and made a public commitment to reimbursing the stolen money. In December that year, the NSW Government announced the establishment of the Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme (the Scheme) to oversee the return of amounts held on trust to people affected or their direct descendants.  

The Centre worked extensively with the community to raise awareness of the Scheme, launching a free ‘stolen wages helpline’, and touring regional NSW to explain repayments and assist Aboriginal Elders registering claims. We provided pro bono legal support to claimants and publicised the Scheme in the media, with Acting Principal Solicitor, Vavaa Mawuli appearing on the ABC’s Stateline program in August 2010.  

Advocating for fair repayments 

We consistently advocated to make the Scheme fairer.  

A panel of three Government-appointed Aboriginal members considered claims. Applicants had to show strong evidence their money had been placed into a controlled trust account and they had never received it.  

Claimants faced issues providing evidence, given the passage of time and poor record-keeping of Government agencies. Premier Carr acknowledged this in his apology speech, decrying the ‘miserable nature of the records that have been left to us.’ 

In 2009, we obtained information showing that two-thirds of claims processed by the Scheme were refused due to a lack of evidence. With other advocacy groups, we called for change, saying the panel should focus on whether there was reliable circumstantial, oral or documentary evidence to support a claim.  

The Scheme guidelines then changed, giving greater weight to oral evidence. Another change meant all successful claimants now received an $11,000 lump sum, which was beneficial for some people, but meant others were shortchanged. Under the old rules, some claimants had received four times as much. We challenged the NSW Government to honour its original commitment to reimburse the full amounts owed to people.  

Claimants were given 28 days to apply to remain under the previous rules (and able to claim for more than $11,000) and were required to show it would be in ‘the interests of justice or equity’. As many claimants were elderly, often living in remote areas of NSW, and disadvantaged by limited education opportunities, ANTaR and the Centre said this was inadequate notice and successfully advocated for an extension of two weeks.  

Before the Scheme was due to expire, we successfully advocated for a 2-year extension to allow additional claims. When it ended in 2011, the Scheme had paid out $12.9 million from Aboriginal Trust Funds – far below the full amount withheld. In total, we helped more than 200 Aboriginal people to submit claims.  

While many Aboriginal people were repaid their money, they were not compensated for the harms caused by the theft of wages – though successful claimants were asked to sign a statement suggesting they had received ‘compensatory element for the hurt caused by the deprivation’ of their wages.  

Many others died before ever receiving what they were owed. 

Further Reading 

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Where are the stolen wages?’. 1 March 2004 

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Marjorie awaits her back pay, 62 years late’, 5 February 2004 

Talkin’ Justice, PIAC Indigenous Justice Program bulletin, December 2008 

Indigenous Law Bulletin, ‘Stolen wages: evidentiary challenges for claimants,’ March / April 2010 

Marilyn Hoey, ‘Repaying the Trust: A history of the operation and outcomes of the NSW Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme 2005 to 2011’, UTS Masters Thesis, 2017. 

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