• Roy Savo was one of the lead claimants in a class action to recover stolen wages from the Queensland Government. (NITV)Source: NITV
The $190 million payout is the largest settlement involving Indigenous people outside native title claims – but for the workers themselves, the result is bittersweet.
Ella Archibald-Binge

12 Jul 2019 - 12:08 PM  UPDATED 12 Jul 2019 - 12:08 PM

It was just days after celebrating his 80th birthday when Roy Savo learnt that he and around 10,000 others would share in a landmark $190 million settlement as compensation for their stolen wages.

"It was a beautiful birthday present, to say the least," he said. 

From the age of 13, the former stockman spent a decade working in what he describes as slave-like conditions on cattle stations across Queensland for no pay.

In 2016, he joined a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers suing the Queensland government in a class action for withholding their wages for 30 years under discriminatory legislation.

The final settlement is less than half of the estimated $550 million owed.

"I think they could’ve done better than what we are being offered now, but I suppose it’s something that we should be happy with," says Mr Savo.

Lawyers leading the class action say the $190 million was "fair" given the circumstances. 

BELaw associate Jerry Tucker says the settlement will spare elderly claimants from giving evidence during a lengthy trial which had been slated for early next year. 

"We’ve got one lady that’s 100 years old this year and we didn’t want to put her through that," Ms Tucker said.

"It was a long time ago and really we just needed to put an end to it as soon as we could."

But the decision comes too late for those who’ve already passed on, including Mr Savo’s cousin and fellow stockman Gregory Dunn, who died days before he was due to give evidence at a pre-trial hearing in 2017.

"In my way I said brother, we won, and it’s so sad that you’re not here to collect your share of it," Mr Savo said. 

Deputy Premier Jackie Trad has apologised to the families of those who didn't live to see the settlement. 

"I would say sorry on behalf of the Queensland government that justice wasn’t provided in time," she told media on Wednesday.

"I’m sorry that there were First Nations Queenslanders who worked hard, who didn’t see that money and who died in poverty."

Descendants of the deceased will still be eligible to receive payments, as lawyers decide how to distribute the funds.

Ms Tucker said lawyers were working through the difficult process as quickly as possible.

"We’re looking at lots of different groups, like Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal men and women," she said.

"It’s likely that people won’t receive equal sums, but we are trying to refine that and make it as fair as possible."

Roy Savo hopes to pass the money onto his grandchildren, to ensure they can "have an education that I didn’t have and make something of their life".

While it may not be justice served, Mr Savo is glad that decades of discrimination, hardship and struggle have finally been acknowledged.

"It’s like a big load lifted off me now," he said.

"I’m glad the world out there knows what happened to us...it’s something special, always will be, this moment of recognition."

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who lived on a reserve and worked in Queensland between 1939 and 1972, or their descendants, may still be eligible to join the class action. For more information, contact BE Law on (07) 4051 5388.