Iris grew up on Cherbourg Reserve in Queensland. “At the age of 15-16 the government organised for you to work as a domestic woman,” she explains. 

Iris was under the impression she would earn 5 pounds a week as a domestic helper. But her first pay was less than half the anticipated amount. When she queried this, Iris was informed that 3 pounds from each week’s pay would be sent back to Cherbourg.

Because she is Aboriginal, Iris's wages for years of hard domestic labour were paid to the government. Despite her efforts to recover that money, Iris has never seen the majority of her wages earned during those years.

“I could not do anything about that,” explains Iris. “That’s how they controlled you... We just didn’t have any rights whatsoever really, living on those communities.”

At age 21, Iris became eligible to apply for “exemption”, which allowed her to access her bank account and the withheld payments. But after going through this process, Iris found only a small amount of money in her bank account, despite many years of hard work. 

Iris attempted to trace the missing money, but she was simply told it had gone “back to the department.” When Iris fought for her rights to the money, she received a letter from Anna Bligh, informing Iris that the government would only allow her to receive $3000 of the withheld wages. “There was nothing more you could do about it,” Iris says. “That’s it.”

Iris is one of hundreds of Indigenous people who had their wages stolen in this manner.

Living under 'The Act'

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Australian governments introduced legislation to regulate the lives of many Indigenous people. This legislation is commonly referred to as the 'protection Act' because its stated intention was to 'protect' Indigenous people. The Act was enforced by ‘protectors’, who were often police officers.

This information has been sourced from Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages, the report of the Inquiry into Stolen Wages by the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee in 2006.

Stolen wages

Throughout the 19th  and 20th centuries, governments put in place extensive controls over the employment, working conditions and wages of Indigenous workers. These controls permitted the non-payment of wages to some Indigenous workers, as well as the underpayment of wages, and the diversion of wages into trust and savings accounts. Although protectors and governments were under obligations to keep proper records and account for all money owed to Indigenous people, these obligations were often not complied with. There is a lot of evidence of the misuse of this money, including misappropriation by governments, fraud by protectors and employers, and non-payment or underpayment of wages by employers.

Indigenous workers were also subjected to appalling work and living conditions. The sexual abuse of girls and women sent to do domestic work was particularly common. For example, in 1915 it was estimated that 90% of girls sent out from Cherbourg to work as domestics came back pregnant to white men. Many of these children were then removed and institutionalised.

Besides wages, governments also withheld other payments to Indigenous people such as child endowment, maternity allowance and pensions.

It has been estimated that $500 million is owed to Indigenous people in Queensland alone.  

This information has been sourced from Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages, the report of the Inquiry into Stolen Wages by the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee in 2006. 

About Cherbourg Reserve

Cherbourg Reserve was established on Wakka Wakka country in 1900 by a member of the Salvation Army. Originally known as Barambah, Cherbourg was was handed to the Queensland government in 1905.

Almost every aspect of life at Cherbourg was highly controlled. The Superintendent had authority over whether people entered or left the reserve, where they lived, who they lived with, where they worked and who they married.The threat of being further separated from family or removed to other communities (such as the penal reserve on Palm Island) was used as another form of social control.

Living conditions and facilities at Cherbourg were very poor and there was a very high death rate in the early years. Despite this, the population continued to grow due to the forced removals of Indigenous people from other areas across the state.

Not only was the act of removal from country traumatic in itself, but removing someone from their traditional land meant removing that person from their source of meaning and identity. Not only were people forcibly removed from their own land, but at Cherbourg many of their children were further removed from their families to be brought up in dormitories.

Cherbourg had a dormitory system for children and for single women. Children living in the dormitories were usually orphans or children whose parents were considered unable to care for them. The dormitory system in Cherbourg remained operational until the 1970s.

This information has been sourced from Bambrick, H. 2003, Landscapes and Legacies: Cherbourg past to present, a thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of The Australian National University.