• Former stockman Roy Savo (right) is glad his struggle has been recognised. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
For 10 years, stockman Roy Savo worked 17-hour days for no pay, in what is now known as the 'Stolen Wages'. But what happened at Normanton, is what he'll never forget.
Ella Archibald-Binge

The Point
22 Nov 2016 - 4:36 PM  UPDATED 29 Mar 2017 - 1:53 PM

The year is 1960.

Harper Lee publishes a then unknown book called ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. In Dublin, a mother names her newborn son Paul David Hewson (he’s now better known as Bono). And Americans tune in to watch the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Meanwhile in Australia, a young stockman is working 17-hour-days on a Queensland cattle station, for no pay.

You see, the young stockman is Aboriginal, and from 1898 until the early 1970s, it was illegal to pay wages to Indigenous people in Queensland, under the Aborigines Protection Act.

Instead, their wages were split between a government-managed savings account, tax, and the Aborigines Welfare Fund, with the workers themselves sometimes receiving a small amount of pocket money.

Aboriginal stolen wages graph

The young stockman’s name was Roy Savo, but to the station owner he was known only as 'boy'.

From the age of 13, he spent a decade droving cattle and breaking in horses, often in what he describes as slave-like conditions.

But it’s what happened at Normanton that Roy will never forget.

"We were nothing more than animals."

The 'coloured boys' rarely got full meal breaks. When they did, they ate outside with the animals. They didn’t get showers, but bathed in the horse troughs. While others were sleeping, they tended to the horses, often curling into their swags at midnight before the next day’s 4am start.

“We were nothing more than animals,” Roy says.

Stolen wages class action claimant Roy Savo

One day when Roy was out droving, a young Aboriginal man had the cheek to ask his boss to repeat an order. For this, the boss dragged him off his horse and proceeded to flog him with the stock whip: “When I speak, you listen.”

On the worst days, Roy would pick the wildest horse to break in, and pray that it would kill him. 

During his 10 years as a stockman, Roy received no wages. He heard people talk about money, but had never seen it – let alone held it.

Roy Savo and family.

The Aborigines Protection Act was overhauled in the early 1970s, and workers’ government-controlled savings accounts were closed. But Roy, and thousands of others, never received their wages.  

In today’s dollars, it’s estimated the Queensland Government withheld $500 million from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers.

There have been various attempts to “compensate” those affected by what’s become known as the stolen wages.

In recent years the State Government has offered a series of reparation payments, including a current scheme by the Palaszczuk Government, as a “gesture of reconciliation”.

In 2002, then-Premier Peter Beattie rolled out a $55 million reparations scheme, with individual payments capped at $4000.

“I just appeal to those who are entitled, to accept the offer in the interests of resolution,” Mr Beattie said at the time.

A pamphlet advised eligible claimants, many elderly, that should they choose to take legal action, “a court case can take many years, and the government has money to oppose the case, and to delay it. Remember the Mabo case took 12 years to resolve.”

Stolen wages government pamphlet

Roy initially felt deeply insulted: “You can tell your boss, stick it where the sun don’t shine!”. But given his financial hardship, he and thousands of others were convinced to take the money.

The retired stockman received a total of $9000 for a decade of hard labour and a lifetime of disadvantage. Historians conservatively estimate he is owed more than 10 times that amount. 

Roy is now one of 360 claimants seeking to recover their wages from the State Government in a class action. Most are elderly and frail, and want the money to pay for funeral costs, or to pass on to their children. For Roy, he wants to give his children something he never had: an education an a chance to “be somebody in life”.

Stolen wages claimant Roy Savo with his family.

The year is 2016.

Bono has sold over 100 million records. To Kill a Mockingbird is cemented in literary history. Americans have witnessed more than 30 televised presidential debates.

Meanwhile, in Australia, Roy Savo is 77, and he is still waiting to be paid. 


If you, or a family member, had their wages controlled or withheld by the Queensland Government, you can contact Bottoms English Lawyers here or call 07 4041 1641. 


Join hosts Karla Grant, Rae Johnston, Allan Clarke, Ryan Liddle and Natalie Ahmat for hard hitting news and current affairs when The Point returns weeknights from Monday April 3rd at 9pm.


Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact:

Lifeline on 13 11 14

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467

Multicultural Mental Health Australia www.mmha.org.au

Local Aboriginal Medical Service available from www.vibe.com.au