• Bill Harney fights for stolen wages (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Mr Harney is one of the hundreds of people suing the federal government over stolen wages dating back decades.
Lindy Kerin

The Point
27 Aug 2021 - 4:43 PM  UPDATED 7 Sep 2021 - 4:48 PM

At 90 years of age, Bill Harney still gets up at dawn to build a fire to cook his breakfast. 

“If I retire, I’ll just go to sleep every day. No good,” he told NITV’s The Point. 

“You’ve got to be on the move, that’s what I do. It keeps me happy too.” 

He is used to hard work.  

But for a long time, he wasn’t paid for it. 

Bill is part of a class action against the Federal Government to recoup millions of dollars in wages stolen between the 1930s and 1970s in the Northern Territory. 

As a young kid, growing up out bush, Bill says he learnt the value of working hard. 

“I used to walk down to the yards, giving a hand to the old people, shoeing horses, breaking in horses, helping with loads of cattle,” he said. 

He went on to work on some of the Territory's biggest cattle stations. He was just 17 when he became head stockman. 

Those days were long and hard, moving cattle across the Top End. 

But he earned nothing for his labour. 

Seven days a week. No pay. I wasn’t getting paid, but this white man was getting paid,” he said. 

“We worked for nothing. We were living on bread, beef and damper.” 

The class action is being mounted by Shine lawyers on behalf of hundreds of workers, but that number could be more. 

“We're still trying to determine exactly how many people have been affected by the protections regimes in relation to the stolen wages case, but we estimate it could be up to around 10 thousand people,” says Shine’s special counsel Tristan Gaven. 

It will also look at compensation for the families of workers who have since died. 

Waanyi and Kalkadoon Barrister Joshua Creamer has been travelling across the Territory collecting evidence and hearing stories from former stockmen, farmhands and domestic workers. 

He worked on the successful stolen wages case in Queensland which resulted in a $190 million settlement. 

“I call them the Forgotten Australians actually, those people out there who build our country,” he said. 

“Whether working on the pastoral stations, working out on the boats or working in the railways or in the hospitals. 

“Their labour built the country, and their wages were stolen.”  

Mr Creamer says the case is about acknowledging past wrongs and making sure those affected by discriminatory policies of the past are compensated.  

“I do feel a sense of obligation to share those stories because it's a part of our history which isn't being fully appreciated.” 

Bill Harney is a well-known artist and holder of the two lighting brothers’ story which he shares in through his art. 

He wants to pass on those stories to his children and grandchildren.  

And if there’s a class action win, he’ll be passing that on too. 

“I told my boy, if I get a lot of money, I won’t use it, but you can have it, when I go. It’ll be there for you,” he says. 

The first hearing of the class action took place in the Federal Court in Melbourne. 

The court heard the case needed to be dealt with swiftly because of the age of the group members. 

There’s a sense of urgency too from Bill Harney.  

“I want to see that money right now, while I’m still around. I’m 90,” he says. 

“I don’t want to see that money come in later when I go, I want to see that money right now.” 

The next hearing has been set for September 28. 

NT class action launched over stolen wages
Lawyers say they have filed a class action on behalf of Indigenous stockmen, farmhands and domestic labourers who were forced to work for little or no pay during the last century.

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