Work vs Exploitation: Fair Pay For Disabled Workers

Disabled people and others in marginalized communities have long been exploited for cheap, even free labour. It’s time the discussion of fair pay was had, as is the case elsewhere. 

According to an NZ Herald report yesterday, a woman with a disability is being paid $2.30 per hour by Air New Zealand to untangle earphones, something that is perfectly legal in New Zealand.

It is one of those simple yet divisive issues, how much should a person be paid to work? Throw the disability label into the equation, and you’ve got an even muddier conversation to have.

I want to start this by stating a simple and obvious fact. There is a difference between working and volunteering.

Working in a professional environment deserves fair and equal pay, regardless of if a person is disabled, or a woman. I make that connection because in the past 24 hours I’ve seen and read the justifications of some 900+ disabled people being exempt from the minimum wage being made by the same people that have argued the gender pay gap being discriminatory.

Like that gender pay gap, legal wage exemptions for disabled workers is just as discriminatory, so please, take a look at yourself in the mirror.

The barriers that disabled people face in finding work are well-known, as are the wage exemption issues placed on many of them. It’s something that has been allowed to happen thanks largely in part to the stigma that is still attached, primarily to those with an intellectual disability.

That stigma, as was repeated to me just yesterday, is that those with a disability don’t have the skills to command the minimum wage.

Sure, I am willing to believe that this is the mindset of many a mainstream employer. I am also willing to believe that for a lot of these 900+ disabled people, the pay isn’t the primary motivator for doing tasks such as untangling headphones for an airline company. I would assume that for some it is about giving something back to the community, having a sense of purpose, getting that feeling of achievement, just doing something to stand up and be counted.

My bigger point here is that this is known by employers, by agencies, even by some disability organisations, and it is being exploited.

Combining this pay, in some cases even as little as $1 per hour, with the Work and Income benefit, is another justification some are trying to make. I get your point but you are missing the bigger point.

Such is why this has become such a divisive issue and one that the disability community needs to address. What should come of this is a simple question, that being, is this what we are willing to accept for our people? There is already enough discriminatory practice out there, are we willing to sit back and say this is ok because of reasons X, Y, and Z?

Furthermore, accepting the premise that some may have limited skills, why don’t we also talk about why that may the case, is it a lack of ability or a lack of investment from the very start?

Dress it up and justify it any way you like, but this is an issue that has already been overlooked for far too long. Maybe now we can address this, not only in terms of what is fair and justifiable, but what is an actual job versus tokenistic cheap labour.

That’s something to ponder as this country heads into a budget week where Government is expected to put aside billions in resource for other areas.

PERSONAL: The Importance Of Focusing On How I Contribute

The only things in life that you can control are your words, actions, and feelings, but you can also influence a lot of outcomes with your ability or inability to think critically about what you do and don’t do in certain situations. 

Sometimes a choice isn’t within your own control, ask a large majority of the population working in careers they despise if you don’t believe me. A lot of the time, we may have to act in a situation where the choice has been made for us and this can lead you to a situation of attempted influence or actioned ignorance.

That’s a very technical term to describe a simple concept. How you choose to react, deal with, and respond to a situation where the choice isn’t always just in your hands, as you’d prefer, can often reflect whether you’re prepared to rise to, or have settled to accept and ignore.

The truth is, you can do both, but the latter will leave a far more negative taste in the mouth of those around you, particularly the ones you will have to answer to.

Being Clear, Concise, And Patient 

Like you, I find myself in situations that challenge my thoughts and decisions multiple times every day. Perhaps that’s a reflection on me because I haven’t worked out the powers of command and control as yet.

But that raises the question, would I really want to live in that sort of world?

As much as challenging situations can be stressful and lead to all sorts of emotional responses, it’s important to do two things during that. One, be analytical about how you handled that situation when reflecting, and two, realize that you were probably a big part of the reason that situation occurred.

For example, last week I texted one of my support workers with a very vague message that led her to believe I wanted immediate action. If I had been more specific about what I was actually asking and saying, then she wouldn’t have thought I was demanding for a response right there and then, and thus, she wouldn’t have felt annoyed and that I had suddenly changed my plans at the last second, with the direct implication being that I required more work out of her.

That’s just one example of many lessons I’ve learnt recently involving how my own direct action, inaction, or lack of clarity can lead to confusing and annoying situations.

I’d have saved myself, and her, a lot of anxiety by simply being more clear, and perhaps a little more patient.

Focusing On How I Contribute To The Wider We

The events in Christchurch recently sparked a lot of conversation about the acceptance of different cultures and religions.

I’d like to see the same conversations happening around how we interact with one another, the things we say or not say, and how we deal with conflicting viewpoints because it’s not too dissimilar from the current unity being shown on that front. Like this example, we shouldn’t have to wait and experience such tragedy for the glass ceiling on these other important conversations to finally be blown off.

Some may say that leaning on the notion that accepting so much is beyond our control may be of defeatist thinking.

That’s where the power of conversation comes in. As an entire society and especially in the online spaces, we need to slow down, think, evaluate, and encourage ourselves to not let frustrated or bitter emotions get in the way of simply having a conversation about the issue/issues at hand. The same goes for non-issues, those positive points in our lives where we think everything is great and not in need of any further evaluation.

Everything needs evaluation, ongoing clarity,  and systematic acknowledgement that we ourselves are always half of everything. We aren’t the whole 100%, our virtues and beliefs may be right and working for us, but that doesn’t mean they are correct and to be followed by all.

It’s a simple concept, but it can often take a lifetime to understand. For me, it’s taking 27-years and counting.