People talk about work/life balance – especially people who move to the Northern Rivers looking for less work and more balance (naked yoga, anyone?).
But imagine working twelve hours a day, seven days a week.
Now imagine you don’t get paid at the end of each week – or ever.
Not for some passion project or creative mission, mind. All for the gain of a cattle station owner – and, it turns out, the government.
Sound like slavery?
The point of slavery
‘It was coming to that point,’ says eighty-year-old Hans Pearson, the lead claimant in a class action of former QLD Indigenous workers against the QLD government.
‘We were supposed to go to Brisbane on the Wednesday,’ says Mr Pearson from his home in north QLD.
But he says lawyer John Bottoms rang Tuesday saying, ‘You don’t have to go now, mate, it’s all hunky dory, I think they gave in’.
Mr Pearson says he thinks government representatives ‘Changed their tune’ when the idea of slavery emerged in the past year in relation to decades of stolen wages in QLD in mid last century.
Australia’s ‘protection’ acts: a legacy of state-sanctioned disempowerment
Hans Pearson spent the first three years of his life in The Cape Bedford mission on Cape York.
‘Our superintendent was a German pastor, Mr Schwartz’, he says. ‘Australia was fighting the Germans and the Japanese at the time’.
Mr Pearson says the government didn’t trust Mr Schwartz or the Indigenous people under his legal care.
Mr Schwartz went to a prisoner-of-war camp in Sydney and the federal government moved all four or five hundred Indigenous people living on The Cape Bedford mission to Woorabinda, west of Rockhampton.
At the age of fourteen, Mr Pearson put up his age and started work mustering cattle.
He says there were 17 or 18 cattle stations on Cape York and drovers would muster wild cattle using tame cattle to lure them.
Then the stockmen would herd the whole lot down south inland to the Mareeba sale yards.
‘Rough as guts’ working conditions
Conditions on cattle stations were ‘rough as guts,’ says Mr Pearson.
He says tucker wasn’t ‘the best’ and Indigenous workers often slept on dirt floors, starting work around 6am and finishing twelve hours later. One day, Mr Pearson learned he was supposed to have been receiving pocket money of around a pound per week.
He managed to get permission and enough money to visit his sick uncle on Palm Island, where he met the love of his life, Annamay.
Exemption from ‘The Act’
Annamay hadn’t had an easy life either, having spent fourteen years in a ‘dormitory’ – an orphanage – on Palm Island after her mother died, leaving several children behind.
Hans and Annamay worked on cattle stations in Cape York for the next five years; Hans out on the land mustering cattle and Annamay carrying out domestic chores.
Eventually, their boss said they were good workers and deserved to be exempted from QLD’s Aboriginal Protection Act 1869.
The Act was what allowed the government to confiscate Indigenous worker wages under the promise the money was being kept for when workers retired.
Home ownership dream destroyed by stolen wages
Annamay had little education but Mr Pearson says she was ‘always good with numbers’.
She calculated that after ten years working under the Act, her husband had accumulated more than seven thousand pounds in wages.
The couple moved to Innisfail and chose a house.
At the time – 1964 – Mr Pearson says you could buy a house for around five thousand pounds.
When the sergeant of Innisfail called to say Mr Pearson’s wages had arrived from the government, Mr Pearson says he was ‘over the moon’.
But when Mr Pearson went to collect his wages, he received 28 pounds.
He says he couldn’t believe it but the sergeant said, ‘That’s all there is’ and that was that. He and Annamay were devastated. ‘My wife was crying,’ he says.
Govt eventually pays, 50 years late
But they never gave up hope and one day Annamay met a lawyer.
John Bottoms kept their case on file and eventually called about a class action.
The case was settled out of court in early July, with more than ten thousand Indigenous former workers agreeing to accept $190 million in stolen wages.
Mr Bottoms says similar cases are developing quickly in other states, including Western Australia and South Australia.
Mr Pearson says he is grateful and hopes the next generation of Indigenous people have access to the education and career choices he and Annamay never had.