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.

Disabled People Face Additional Complexities Finding Employment

The challenges facing disabled people finding employment are not just a simple matter of a discriminatory job market, it is also about the attitudes on both sides of the equation. The stats of unemployment don’t tell a lie, but neither do the realities facing disabled people, and the solution isn’t straightforward.

Almost every time I cite a statistic which shows that disabled people are clearly marginalised, particularly in the employment space, a familiar argument is made in response. The argument questions how many disabled people within these stats are able to and want to participate in employment, and/or education and training.

One person on Facebook recently raised the following with me:

With an already tight job market, they said, opportunities are limited depending on the disability and that physically disabled people couldn’t have done any of their previous physical labour jobs.

A fair and solid point raised, one I cannot question either.

This is where some of the arguments about blatant discrimination toward disabled people in the workforce begin to fall over. It isn’t as simple as what the stats suggest, the answer to solving the problem doesn’t just sit with changing the attitudes of employers and getting more disabled people into jobs. We need to look at the quality of jobs disabled people get and the market also needs to expand. But it doesn’t end there, either.

Are Disabled People Willing & Able To Fix The Employment Stats? 

Last week, TVNZ revealed that many disabled people who are employed earn less than $5 per hour due to exemptions handed out by the Ministry of Business and Innovation. In one case, a person with Down Syndrome was being paid 89c for their work in the community service sector. Is this what you would call equitable employment and do we want to see it continue?

The heart of the issue sits with attitude and ability. Many, if not most disabled people, want to be treated equally and have the same employment opportunities as their non-disabled peers. In fact, one in five disabled people say that they want to employment and work as many hours as possible. But on the other side of the coin, the argument that this ambition simply isn’t possible for some, due to a variety of factors including access, geographic location, and financial benefit.

The reality for a lot of disabled people may always be that they are unable to work enough hours to ensure that employment is a better financial prospect versus getting a disability benefit each week. The Labour Market Survey for June 2017 showed that weekly income for disabled people was just under 50% less compared to non-disabled, and that disabled people were likely to receive most if not all of that weekly income from Government transfers (74% versus 26% for non-disabled).

And thus, we are still searching for a solution that doesn’t only fix the stats to make New Zealand look like a more equitable country for disabled people, but we are also wrestling with an ideology of what is possible for this diverse community. What is possible, is indeed, perhaps the most diverse reality of them all. 


Employment For Disabled New Zealanders Starts With Equal Education

Education and employment are the two biggest barriers facing disabled people in New Zealand; but they both require a change in order for the other to succeed.

It’s a case of needing to get it right in the education space first, to then raise the probability of employment for disabled people once they enter the workforce. The ever-growing exclusion of disabled people from mainstream education on has a double-ended, and very detrimental consequence.

Detrimental to right of the child to learn on an equal level to their peers, and detrimental on the economy at the other end of the line. Not to mention the only other alternatives, which are often vocational programmes and a life-long reliance on the benefit.

Employment For Disabled New Zealanders Starts With Equal Education

Like their peers, disabled people also have the capability of being future business owners and leaders of New Zealand. But it starts in school, and that’s where the big change is required.

The biggest barrier disabled people face to gain employments is the attitudes by the mainstream businesses. How do you change that? Education. If disabled people can be given equal access to education, by having an system that is equipped to deal with their diverse needs, the result has a result that is both positive and impactful. It’s positive that the person has a good education behind them, but the real impact is the message that it sends to the rest of their peers in school and tertiary.

But, is it really possible to simply make all these changes and say with certainty that disabled people will find employment, or even be able to work?

The Biggest Change Required Is In Attitude…

The disability sector talks so much about the attitudes and stigmas that exist in “mainstream society”. Not only does that conversation immediately segregate the two communities, which should be seen as equal, but it also gives an excuse to disabled people.

Words like “capability”, “cost”, and “compatibility” get thrown into the conversation. All are excuses, and all can be worked around if both the Government, the advocates, and the providers could all get around a table to have an open discussion.

It’s not about disabled people being “capable” of working at all; it’s about the changes that need to be made, in both the disability sector and the mainstream, for them to be on an equal playing field. The rest is down to ideology and excuse.

“You’re Saying A Blind Person Can’t Use The Uber App” – Nationals’ disaster at DPA Meeting

National have come away from an important meeting with members of the disability community having failed to convince in the areas of education and housing.

The DPA (Disabled Persons Assembly) held their political forum in Wellington tonight – but some notable names from Parliament were missing.

Nicky Wagner, the Minister for Disability Issues, wasn’t able to attend the event. Her big rival representing Labour, Poto Williams, also wasn’t present.

In Wagner’s place was Alastair Scott – MP for the Wairarapa electorate. But as it turns out, Wagner may now regret such a decision after Scott’s comments shocked people in the audience and watching online.

As expected, education and housing were the two big talking points at the forum.

Viewers who tuned in to the Facebook livestream aired their frustration, particularly toward the National Party, for a lack of commitment and general understanding of the issues in both key areas.

At one point, the DPA suggested that up to 25% of New Zealand housing should be accessible – a suggestion quickly shut down by National.

Concerns were also raised at the meeting about how people with visual impairments access public transport. Members of the audience asked about taxi’s having braille to make it easier for access.

Alastair Scott, the MP representing National, argued that technology on mobile devices was a suitable replacement for braille.

“Your saying a blind person can’t use the Uber app? I’m not to sure about that, I think they can, but I’ll have to look into that.”

Scott was asked about the difficulties disabled people face accessing Supported Living Payments, organisations like Workbridge, and receiving adequate supports to life an ordinary life. Concerns were also raised about the regulation of benefits, including the Supported Living Payment.

The DPA put forward the scenario of a disabled person who wishes to move into the same house as their partner. Under the current system, if a disabled person lives with a working partner, or a partner also on the benefit, both their weekly payments are significantly impacted.

National showed little, if any empathy, to the situation that many disabled people face.

“Well, when you fall in love and get into a relationship, there are consequences.”

Stats show a decline in people with disabilities accessing benefits, resulting in poverty, but National had a different answer to the questions.

“Those with significant disabilities will come with a higher cost, and that results in the benefits you are receiving.”

New Zealand’s General Election is little over two months away.