• Edith De Giambattista (left) is one of the claimants seeking unpaid wages from the WA Government. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Thousand of Indigenous West Australians are expected to join a class action against the state government to recover decades of unpaid and lost wages.
Keira Jenkins, Sarah Collard

19 Oct 2020 - 4:58 PM  UPDATED 19 Oct 2020 - 4:58 PM

A class action has been filed against the Western Australia government to recover the stolen wages of Indigenous people which were held in government trust accounts instead of being paid to them.

Edith De Giambattista is one of the claimants. She was removed from her home in the south of WA as a young girl and taken to Carrolup Mission north of Perth.

“It was horrible. Just horrible – it was like a rubbish tip. We were locked in a night and just had dirt floors and one blanket," she told NITV News.

While held at Carrolup Mission, Edith was trained as a domestic servant to be sent to work for white families.  

The Noongar Elder, now 87, recalled a meeting with the then Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville, where he asked the girls at the home what they wanted to do as they were "just layabouts".

“I’ll never forget. We told him ‘we want to be nurses’ and he got this horrible smirk on his face and said, ‘Nurses? That’s not for you girls – you’re housemaids.”

'Never saw any money'

Edith worked at five or six homes – where she was expected to work long hours for no wages. It was all held in government-controlled trust accounts.

“We did all the housework, I cooked, cleaned, swept, washing  - even polishing the men’s boots which were all lined up in a row waiting to be cleaned and polished," she said.

"We saw no wages. It was all sent to Perth. I never saw any money and I never got anything back.”

Edith is one of 1000 claimants who have registered for the class action against the state government.

Up until 1972, the state government could withhold up to 75 per cent of an Indigenous workers’ wage in trust accounts – but in many cases, wages were simply never paid out or workers never received wages at all.

Shine Lawyers is representing the group and the firm's Head of Class Actions, Jan Saddler, said they estimate thousands more people are eligible, including descendants of workers. 

"At a minimum there's probably about 8000 people who are entitled to claim and be members in this case, but it may be as many as 14,000 people," she said.

Ms Saddler said she hopes the claim will right historical wrongs. 

"We hope there is a recognition by the Western Australia government of wrongs that have been committed against Indigenous Western Australians by the government in the past," she said.

"A sense of responsibility on the part of the government for that wrongdoing and a recognition that these Indigenous Western Australians worked hard like all other Western Australians and they were denied their rightful entitlement of a fair day's wage for a fair day's work."

The class action in WA comes as the Queensland government recently settled a similar action over unpaid wages for $190 million last year.

Ms De Giambattista said she hoped she would live long enough to see her wages returned to her.

“All I want is what I am owed," she said.

"I’ve been waiting over 70 years. It’s been a long time coming. All I want is the money that I earned. I worked hard for that."

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