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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Aboriginies To Seek Wage Justice

A group of Queensland Aborigines is set to launch a class action seeking reparation of sub-award wages during the Bjelke-Petersen era, with a leaked 1999 state cabinet document appearing to support their claim.

From the 1800s, Aborigines who worked for the Queensland government were routinely paid less than half the wage paid to non-indigenous workers.

While the practice was declared illegal via the federal government's Racial Discrimination Act in 1975, then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen ignored the new laws until 1986.

A Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) hearing in 1996 found six Palm Island workers had been illegally discriminated against.

It ordered the payment of $7,000 and a statement of public regret to each complainant.

In 1999, Premier Peter Beattie's government used this $7,000 figure as basis for reparative payments.

But a document obtained by the National Indigenous Times this week shows the average figure in previous claims was almost double the amount.

The document shows the government moved to avoid litigation by setting up an administrative claims process, aligning itself with the popular Brisbane-based Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (FAIRA) to attract people to the plan.

"The average entitlement in previous claims has been around $13,250," it said.

"Settlements mediated thus far are considerably lower on average, and successful action by the claimants could see the compensatory amounts rise significantly.

"For these reasons, an administrative claims process is the least speculative option in economic terms."

Opponents have also seized upon comments made by then Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy, Judy Spence, indicating the HREOC's intention behind the $7,000 payment.

"That sum was compensation for racial discrimination, not an attempt to deliver the precise back-pay owing to individual claimants," a ministerial statement from Ms Spence dated June 9, 1999, said.

Current minister Liddy Clark said the $7,000 amount was decided not by the State Government, but by HREOC.

"The state government did its utmost to ensure possible claimants were aware of the offer and kept fully informed during the process," a statement from her office said.

Peter Seymour, a lawyer from McInnes Wilson, said he had already found four claimants for a class action, and several more were expected to come forward.

"It's very early stages but from the information I've got, it appears that they've got reasonable prospects of going ahead," Mr Seymour said.

"Basically, it's a claim for the difference between what they did receive and what the awards were, together with a possible claim for pain and suffering."

"We are interested in pursuing any other potential claims and we are talking to (more) people at this time ... there might be quite a number of additional claims."

In 1999, state cabinet agreed to an administration process for settling claims.

At the time, it was estimated by FAIRA that the total claims could be 3,500 at a total cost of $24.5 million, but it was noted that the figure could be higher.

The closing date for claims for compensation for non-payment of award wages was January 31 last year, with the government estimating the final amount paid out to be $39.97 million.

2004 [2003] Australian Associated Press Pty Limited (AAP)

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

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