WA agrees to $180m wage theft settlement

Wage control laws were used in Western Australia from 1936 to 1972 to restrict the pay of First Nations people.
wage control laws

The Western Australian Government has agreed to pay $180 million to First Nations workers impacted by historic discriminatory wage control laws.

The legislation was used in WA from 1936 to 1972 to restrict the pay of many First Nations people.

The Government will publicly apologise for the laws this month. It comes after lawyers representing First Nations workers and their families negotiated a settlement deal.

Wage control laws

Throughout the 20th century, many parts of Australia had laws allowing governments or employers to withhold the wages of First Nations workers. These policies are thought to have impacted tens of thousands of First Nations people.

Wage control in WA significantly impacted farm workers in places like the Kimberley region – where a Federal Government report into Indigenous stolen wages described the standards of workers’ food and housing as “usually poor and often appalling”.

The lawsuit

A lawsuit against the WA Government was filed in the Federal Court in 2020. It was brought on behalf of all First Nations workers subject to WA’s wage control policies.

The case’s lead applicant was a First Nations man born in the 1940s who was subject to wage control laws. The applicant asked for compensation for the damages caused by the policies, as well as an apology.

Families of deceased workers were also eligible to join the class action.

The settlement

Plans for the case to go to trial last month were postponed to allow more time for settlement negotiations.

The Government agreed to a $165 million payout to be shared amongst those in the class action.

Eligible applicants will receive a payment of $16,500 while the Government will also pay an additional $15 million to cover legal costs.

Is there a precedent?

A similar class action is underway in the Northern Territory. It relates to wage control laws imposed on First Nations labourers between 1933 and 1971.

In 2019, the QLD Government agreed to a $190 million settlement for First Nations workers impacted by wage theft policies.

What happens next?

Shine Lawyers, the law firm representing First Nations workers in WA, will now need to finalise the number of eligible applicants in the case.

The Federal Court needs to approve the terms of the settlement before payouts can occur.

A public apology is also expected in WA Parliament on 28 November, to acknowledge the surviving and deceased workers.

Settlement response

WA Premier Roger Cook said he hoped the settlement would “contribute to healing” for those impacted, calling it “an important development in recognising the past injustices inflicted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

Vicky Antzoulatos, Joint Head of Class Actions at Shine Lawyers, said the deal is a victory for thousands of First Nations people.

“Workers and their descendants suffered inter-generational disadvantage because of the legislation.”

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