SYDNEY - Thousands of aboriginal Australians are expected to join a class action lawsuit that has been filed against the West Australian government for compensation for years of unpaid work. Historians have said that at the time the authorities knew the practice was a form of slavery.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, indigenous children as young as four were forcibly taken from their families to work in mines, on farms and as domestic servants in Australia. Many received little or no wages, and some were paid only with bread and beef. Lawyers have said conditions were "akin to slavery." Until the 1970s, wages earned by indigenous workers in Western Australia were paid to the state government, but rarely was the money passed on.
Lawyers have said as many as 10,000 workers and their descendants would be eligible to join the stolen wages class action lawsuit, which has been filed in Australia's Federal Court.
Jan Saddler is the head of class actions at Shine Lawyers, a legal firm that is leading the court case.
"We have been talking to indigenous Western Australians who are well into their 70s and 80s. Those people have effectively been waiting all their lives to be properly compensated. 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.
Up until the late 1970s, Australia's laws controlled every aspect of indigenous peoples' lives - from buying clothes to whether they could marry. They also allowed wages to be withheld.
The Western Australian state government, which is being sued for compensation, has said it hopes a mediated settlement can be reached.
Multi-million-dollar reparation schemes have compensated indigenous workers in the states of Queensland and New South Wales. A previous restitution program in Western Australia limited claimants to payments of $1,400 and came with strict conditions. Campaigners said it was too restricted and did not go far enough to address the injustices of the past.
A federal parliamentary inquiry in 2006 tried to determine how much money may have been stolen from aboriginal Australians over the decades, but lawmakers found that wage theft was so widespread the amount was almost impossible to calculate.