Wollongong mother Jan May has written to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, urging him to take action to safeguard jobs for people with a disability.
People like Mark May – her 51-year-old son – who has spent over three decades working for Illawarra’s Flagstaff Group. The work gives him independence, increased self esteem and, Mrs May said, a wage that is appropriate to his skills.
However the organisation is one of three major Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs) in the region which could be forced to cut jobs – or even close down – if a new productivity-based wage tool is introduced.
‘’The bulk of people who come to Greenacres do so because it’s an inclusive and supportive environment. They come to socialise and with a sense of dignity that they do have a job.''
Flagstaff, Greenacres and The Disability Trust are among the ADEs across Australia awaiting a decision when the critical issue comes before the Fair Work Commission in February.
The Illawarra services, their workers and supporters will protest the proposed changes at a midday rally in Wollongong Mall on September 26.
Greenacres CEO Chris Christodoulou said those changes could have a ‘’extremely adverse effect’’ on all disability enterprises.
‘’Fair Work has to make a decision on the best method of assessing wages for people with a disability,’’ he said.
‘’The Federal government has put forward a proposition where it wants people with a disability to be assessed according to piecework and how fast they work. We think that is unacceptable given that the rest of the workforce have their wages based on their skills.
‘’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.’’
Mr Christodoulou said supported employees’ income was supplemented by the disability pension, and when added together the vast majority were getting far more than minimum wage.
‘’If the government’s position is adopted by the Fair Work Commission, we would have significant job losses and it would mean the potential closure of all of our Greenacres enterprises.’’
Not that the issue was just one of finances he said. There was also a social cost if jobs were lost.
‘’The bulk of people who come to Greenacres do so because it’s an inclusive and supportive environment. They come to socialise and with a sense of dignity that they do have a job.’’
Mrs May said without ADEs many people with a severe disability may not be able to gain employment.
‘’Mark for instance has quite a severe intellectual disability – he cannot read, nor write anything other than his own name, he can’t manage money nor tell the time,’’ she said.
‘’He is not capable of, nor would he want to, try and find open employment. He loves his work at Flagstaff – he’s constantly challenged and the staff have the time and the expertise to train him. And he’s happy with what he’s paid – it’s perfect for his ability.’’
Supported employees receive what is known as a ‘pro rata’ wage rate (a percentage of the full rate). It’s worked out by using a special calculator, or wage assessment tool.
The most commonly used wage tool for supported employees –the Business Services Wage Assessment Tool (BSWAT) – combines an assessment of productive output with a competency assessment, which measures the employee’s skills, qualifications and job knowledge.
But a court ruling in 2012 found that tool was discriminatory for two workers with an intellectual disability.
The findings went to the Human Rights Commission which decided that a new wage model should be put in place. All parties have since been working to come up with a new tool through a Fair Work Commission process, with a decision on the government’s proposed productivity-based tool expected at February’s hearing.
A Department of Social Services spokesperson said the government was committed to ensuring the ongoing employment of up to 20,000 workers and the viability of ADEs.
‘’This commitment includes almost $200 million in funding for the sector to adjust to new wage arrangements for supported employees in ADEs, in readiness for expected higher wage outcomes and transition to the NDIS,’’ the spokesperson said.
‘’The government is committed to ensuring that any new wage settings for supported employees allows for the ongoing viability of ADEs for employees, their families and the business, while also meeting Australia’s obligations under international law.’’
But Flagstaff CEO Roy Rogers said many workers, and their parents and carers, shared Mrs May’s concerns about a move from BSWAT to a productivity-based tool.
‘’Between Flagstaff, Greenacres and The Disability Trust, we employ about 600 people with a disability in the Illawarra. For the majority, it’s more than just a job – part of it is about the pay they receive, but it’s also a secure place for them to come and meet friends.
‘’It’s a place that can accommodate their ups and downs, and can give them ongoing training so they continually develop skills and have a lifelong sense of achievement.’’
Mrs May hasn’t yet heard back from the Prime Minister, nor Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, Minister for Social Services Christian Porter or the other politicians she wrote to in late August, when she urged them to act in the best interests of the workers.
‘’Mark is satisfied and likes his current employment. As his mother I do not want this to disappear because it becomes financially unsustainable. He and his peers would be denied the dignity and self-esteem of being an effective contributor to society.’’
What are ADEs?
Australian Disability Enterprises are not-for-profit organisations which provide meaningful employment for people with a disability.
ADEs employ 20,000 workers in Australia.
In the Illawarra three major ADEs employ 600 workers.
They are businesses that make products, or provide services.