Lead applicant Mervyn Street has welcomed an apology to stolen wages survivors in WA. (Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS)

Western Australia has issued a formal apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who were denied wages because of past racist government legislation.

The apology, delivered by WA Premier Roger Cook in state parliament on Tuesday, addressed the systemic withholding of wages from Indigenous workers between 1936 and 1972.

During that time thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers endured grueling conditions, working long hours without compensation, often receiving meagre payments in rations like flour, sugar, tea, and tobacco.

Expressing deep regret, Premier Cook acknowledged the First Nations people in the gallery, as well those no longer with us.

“In bringing a close to this part of WA’s history, on behalf of the State of Western Australia, I apologise to the Aboriginal men, women and children who worked in WA between 1936 and 1972 – for decades in many cases – for no pay or not enough pay.

“While we acknowledge that many of those people have not lived to see this day, for their family members who remain, we are sorry for the hurt and loss that your loved ones suffered.”

He added that the treatment of Indigenous people in WA was a “blight” on the state’s history.

“The fact that this mistreatment existed for Aboriginal workers for decades is a blight on the legacy of successive governments. The fact that our laws facilitated these outcomes brings great shame for that. We are sorry.

“These workers, men, women, and children, worked under oppressive conditions. In many cases. There was the threat of violence. The impacts of these laws were felt across the state in a range of different work settings.”

The historic apology follows the settlement of a class action in early-November that will see the WA government pay up to $180.4 million to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, or their surviving family members, that faced economic exploitation.

Senior Gooniyandi Elder Mervyn Street initiated the class action in 2020, and was in the gallery when representatives of Labor, Liberal, and the Nationals extended apologies and remorse to all applicants.

Labor’s member for Kimberley, Divina D’Anna, is a Yawuru, Nimanburr and Bardi woman and praised Mr Street and all the brave workers that came forward in the class action.

“These stolen wages were not by accident,” she said in parliament.

“These stolen wages were a result of legislation and policies inflicted onto Aboriginal people by governments of the day. In fact, many of those atrocious laws were agreed to right here where we are standing today.

“Moments like these are important because we cannot heal from these deep wounds if we do not acknowledge what went on in this country.

“Financial compensation is one tool that the government has to acknowledge the injustices and suffering caused by past government policies. It doesn’t correct what has happened, but it offers a way forward.”

Speaking after the apology, Barbara Moore, a member of the class action group, expressed gratitude for the government’s recognition.

“I’m glad that we’ve had a win and the government has come to realise the suffering and the pain that our people have gone through. To tell the stories is so important, it’s all about the truth telling – it’s still very painful for all the stories to come out for us.,

“I thank the people who have passed on – they are forever in our hearts and without their stories, we would’ve never got this compensation. When we told all these stories, it brought back a lot of memories and a lot of heartache and pain.  

“From North, South, East and West, this has affected all of our people.”

Ms Moore also extended heartfelt thanks to Shine Lawyers for their relentless efforts in amplifying the voices of the affected individuals and facilitating the class action that led to this significant milestone in seeking justice.