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Native Australians Seek Payment for ‘Slavery-Like’ Conditions

FILE - People carry Australian Aboriginal flags during a demonstration on Australia Day in Sydney, Jan. 26, 2019.
FILE - People carry Australian Aboriginal flags during a demonstration on Australia Day in Sydney, Jan. 26, 2019.
Native Australians Seek Payment for 'Slavery-like' Conditions
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Thousands of aboriginal Australians are expected to join a legal case that lawyers are bringing against the West Australian government. The case seeks payment for what it says are years of unpaid work. Historians have said that, at the time, the officials knew the work was a form of slavery.

The legal action says the unfair labor took place during the 19th and 20th centuries. It says indigenous children as young as four were taken from their families to work in mines, on farms and as servants in Australia. Many received little or no money, and some were paid only with bread and meat. Lawyers have said conditions were “akin to slavery.”

Until the 1970s, money earned by indigenous workers in Western Australia was paid to the state government, but rarely given to the worker.

Lawyers have said as many as 10,000 workers and their descendants would be able to join the legal case. The lawyers brought the case in Australia’s Federal Court.

Jan Saddler is a lawyer at Shine Lawyers, a legal company that is leading the court case. She said indigenous Western Australians were part of the case. Some are now more than 70 or 80 years old.

“…They are actually waiting to receive their wages from the 1940s and the 1950s and they still have not been paid, and this is what that claim is all about,” she said.

Australia’s laws controlled everything in an indigenous person’s life -- from what they could buy to whether they could get married. The law also permitted that their wages could be taken by the government. That situation lasted until the 1970s.

In February 2008, then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to Australia’s indigenous peoples for the way they had been treated.

“To the Stolen Generations, I say the following: as Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry,” he said.

Stolen Generations is the name given to tens of thousands of Australian Aboriginal children who were taken from their families. They were sent to white Australians as workers or servants up until the 1970s.

The Western Australian state government has said it hopes for a settlement. The government would like mediators to negotiate with the indigenous people.

Reparations plans have paid millions of dollars to indigenous workers in the states of Queensland and New South Wales. An earlier reparations plan in Western Australia limited payments to $1,400 and came with several conditions. Indigenous peoples’ rights campaigners said it was too restricted and did not truly answer for the injustices of the past.

A federal parliamentary investigation in 2006 tried to establish how much money may have been stolen from aboriginal Australians over the many years. Lawmakers found that wage theft was so widespread that is was impossible to arrive at a final amount.

I’m Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

aboriginal –adj. of or relating to the native people of Australia, known as aborigines

akin –adj.similar or related to

descendant –n. someone who is related to a person or group of people who lived in the past

wages – that is paid a worker based on the number of hours or other units that they have worked

mediator –n.someone who works with opposing sides in a dispute in order to reach an agreement

reparations –n. money that a country or group pays when it loses a war to pay for damage and loss; a payment to correct a mistake that someone or some group has caused

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