Australian employees with disability are being paid as little as $1 an hour.
This breaches international law and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, lawyer groups say.
It’s also contributing to issues such as poverty and depression, disability advocates say.
The information is contained in submissions to the Australian government and the government’s final summary of consultations with the disability sector, which has just been published.
Federal Minister for Social Services Dan Tehan did not put out a media release to announce the report.
The consultation looked at the employment and conditions of 20,000 people with disabilities in Australian Disability Enterprises, which operate in a range of industries, including hospitality, catering, retail, horticulture, packaging, manufacturing, recycling and cleaning services.
The organisations are certified against national standards in Australia’s Disability Services Act 1986.
Many sell their goods and services through the government-backed BuyAbility organisation, which boasts on its website generation of $1 billion in income.
A government discussion paper confirms wages range from $1 an hour to full award wages. The average rate is $5.61 an hour. The average weekly wage is $121.72.
AED Legal Centre in Melbourne is a specialist community legal service for people with disability. It won the Law Institute of Victoria’s Community Lawyer of the Year Award in 2011 and the 2016 National Disability Award for Excellence in Justice and Rights Protection.
“The Australian enterprises do not comply with international law and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD),” AED Legal Centre says in its submission to the government.
“It is our contention that the majority of ADEs do not comply with article 27 of the CRPD as they do not provide inclusive work environments. They remain largely segregated workplaces and in essence a form of institutionalisation.
“Nor do the majority of ADEs deliver fair and equitable remuneration. We have clients who are paid less than $1 an hour.
“Fair wages are not a bonus. They are a human right.
“Based on wages alone, many ADEs do not meet the criteria of article 27 (CRPD) as they do not provide employment ‘on an equal basis with others’ particularly in relation to wages, working conditions and wage assessment tools employed.”
Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, based in Sydney, is a national association of Australian solicitors, barristers, academics, judicial officers and law students who practise and promote international human rights law in Australia.
ALHR said the wages are “unacceptable and in violation of international law, domestic law and basic standards of human dignity and decency”, in its submission.
“The current minimum rate of pay for individuals with disabilities is profoundly demeaning and discriminatory and must be increased from $1 per hour,” it says.
“Australia must move on from the ‘sheltered workshop’ type of employment of individuals with disabilities and ensure that those who aspire to work are supported to do so in open employment. This should include the removal of the various societal barriers that prevent the participation of individuals with disabilities in the open labour market on an equal basis with others.
“Moreover, there is strong evidence that demonstrates that women with disabilities bear a disproportionate burden of poverty and that women employed with disabilities experience significant and systemic discrimination. Any changes in policies and programs that impact individuals with disabilities must respond specifically to the needs of women and recognise that “women with disabilities have a significantly high level of unmet need for services and support to enable them to live independently and with dignity in the community”.”
Disabled People’s Organisations Australia, in its submission, said: “The rate of poverty amongst people with disability in Australia is the highest in the OECD”.
“We are concerned that Australian Government continues to inaccurately view supported employment, as provided in segregated environments by Australian Disability Enterprises, as compatible with its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”
During the consultations, one employee said: “Some people here are on, like, a dollar an hour. It’s hard to survive”.
The government summary says: “Many of the supported employees interviewed felt that their wages were unfair and were very aware their hourly pay rates were significantly lower than those of others in similar roles or industries. Some noted that being paid less than people without disability made them feel depressed and demoralised. ‘You come to a place like this and people here don’t get paid a lot. I think any workers should be put in a situation where you earn proper money. You should be happy with the work and know you’re getting a full wage’ – supported employee.”
“Many supported employees also felt that their wages were critical to maintaining basic living needs. ‘It’s probably alright for some of us that still live with our parents, but it’s a little harder for people who are living on their own’. – Supported employee.”
Australian Network on Disability said in its submission it was concerned that the government was lifting the cap on the number of employees in ADEs.
“It was never the intention of any previous Government to increase the number of people attending ADEs, which is why the number of places have always been capped. This Government is now lifting that cap. The people with disability who advocated for the NDIS never expected the scheme would mean greater numbers of people attending ADEs, which pay an average wage of $5.60 per hour and remove participants from the chance to work alongside people who do not have disability.”
I asked Minister Tehan if he was happy people with disabilities were being paid $1 an hour and confident Australia was not breaching international law and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. He did not answer.
Instead, his Department of Social Services emailed me some online government information about Australian Disability Enterprises.
Mr Tehan recently announced $5.3 million for ADEs paying higher wages to about 1600 employees. The Fair Work Commission is reviewing how wages of employees of Australian Disability Enterprises are determined.
Australian Disability Enterprises date back to the 19th century and expanded in the 1950s as sheltered workshops.
Assistant Minister for Social Services and Disability Services Jane Prentice recently told a United Nations reception in New York: “As many of you know, Australia was one of the original state signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
“Accessibility is a priority for Australia’s international engagement in development, humanitarian and human rights.”