Workers to share their stories at Wollongong rally

Enterprising: Greenacres CEO Chris Christodoulou, pictured with some of the organisation's supported employees, ahead of a Tuesday rally against wage reform in the sector. Picture: Robert Peet
Enterprising: Greenacres CEO Chris Christodoulou, pictured with some of the organisation's supported employees, ahead of a Tuesday rally against wage reform in the sector. Picture: Robert Peet

Jess Ratcliffe-Henson and Christen Dittmer don’t want people to advocate on their behalf – they want to speak for themselves.

Which is exactly what the Greenacres employees will be doing at a midday rally in Wollongong Mall on Tuesday.

They will be among several supported employees, working for Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs) such as Greenacres, Flagstaff and The Disability Trust, who will be urging the Federal government to safeguard their jobs.

They – along with their carers and families, and their employers – are concerned that a new productivity-based wage tool could be introduced for ADEs. These enterprises now use a wage assessment tool that assesses both productivity and skill.

For Ms Ratcliffe-Henson and Ms Dittmer, who make Greenacres’ Body Safe Body Bags, the result would be disastrous.

There’s a skill in making the body bags – used by hospitals and state forensic departments among others – and they believe their wage should reflect that. It shouldn’t be about how many bags they can make, but how well-made those bags are.

‘’I’ve got mild cerebral palsy, a mild intellectual disability and suffer from depression and anxiety,’’ Ms Dittmer, 25, said. ‘’I went for open employment but was knocked back and have now worked for Greenacres for five years and gained a lot of new skills.

‘’Now I’m doing the body bags which need to be sewn and welded and there’s quite a bit of skill involved. Sometimes I get tired but at Greenacres there’s always someone here to check on how I am.’’

Ms Ratcliffe-Henson, 22 – who has an intellectual disability – said the support was the best part about working for Greenacres; that and the friends she’s made.

‘’Open employers don’t understand your wants and needs, your disability,’’ she said. ‘’Everyone has different abilities and here we feel valued. I’ll fight as much as possible for our jobs.’’

Greenacres CEO Chris Christodoulou said the changes would have an adverse affect on disability enterprises which would be forced to cut jobs, or even close down, if the new tool is introduced. The critical issue comes before the Fair Work Commission in February.

‘’Such a system would lead to major job losses because it artificially increases wages for people doing basic or simple work, and disadvantages people who are of a higher skill level,’’ he said.

Mr Christodoulou said supported employees’ income was supplemented by the disability pension – and they could be far worse off under a new wage tool.

A Department of Social Services spokesperson said the government was committed to ensure that any new wage settings allowed for the ongoing viability of ADEs and their employees, while also ‘’meeting Australia’s obligations under international law’’.

Employees though remained concerned about what they would do if unable to retain their jobs. Flagstaff employee, Emily Frost, summed it up well: ‘’I feel excited about going to work every day,’’ she said. ‘’I’d feel down, like I didn’t belong anywhere, if I lost my job.’’