The Victorian Blind Workers’ Union and United Voice Queensland are battling to save the jobs of 73 vision-impaired workers employed by Vision Australia Enterprises in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales.
Vision Australia announced on August 8 that it will close its supported employment program within three months due to financial losses. It plans to reemploy no more than 12 of its affected employees and sack the remaining workers, many of whom have little prospect of ever finding alternative employment.
The decision to close VAE follows the release of a document in May outlining three proposals for the future of the industry.
The document said: "Over the past six weeks, representatives from the Blind Workers' Union and United Voice Queensland have been engaged in a process of negotiation with a team of senior managers of Vision Australia to attempt to find a solution to the financial situation of VA Enterprises."
During negotiations the unions proposed that Vision Australia and unions work together, lobbying politicians for funds, investigating government funding assistance to small businesses or running a media campaign calling on support from the public and other businesses.
However, the management negotiating team eventually admitted that they had been charged with the task of implementing the closure of VAE rather than working with unions to find an alternative solution.
The impending sacking of the 73 vision-impaired workers is yet another callous systemic discrimination against workers with disability. Article 27e of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities calls on state parties to “Promote employment opportunities and career advancement for persons with disabilities in the labour market, as well as assistance in finding, obtaining, maintaining and returning to employment.”
The amount of government funds needed to save these jobs is small compared with the assistance currently being offered to the car industry. VAE should be nationalised to save vision-impaired workers’ jobs and to provide further job opportunities for workers with disability in line with their rights under the UN convention.
Since Vision Australia no longer wants to run its supported employment program, VAE should be placed under the control of a management committee made up of vision-impaired workers, the Blind Workers Union and United Voice.
Vision impaired workers’ wages should be brought into line with those of non-disabled workers in open employment. Liveable wages and empowerment for people with disability is central to achieving equality and dignity.
Ideally, all workers, regardless of disability, should have secure, meaningful, well-paid jobs. This would eliminate the need for sheltered workshops.
Unemployment among workers with disability is extremely high. Workers with disability face many barriers in getting employment equality, including unequal access to education, housing and transport; attitudinal barriers; and lack of access to equipment and services. Only fundamental changes to society will address systemic inequality.
As part of these fundamental changes, employment participation targets are needed in all industries. An initial target of 10% of jobs in the public sector and 5% of jobs in the private sector should be set aside for the employment of people with disability.
People with disability should be guaranteed job security with the right to take time out from employment for medical reasons. The discriminatory Supported Wage System and draconian Welfare to Work provisions should be scrapped. These laws fail to address barriers to gaining meaningful secure employment with a liveable wage.
Government payments such as Newstart and the Disability Support Pension need to be raised to adequately cover the cost of living. Centrelink harassment of those on benefits must cease.
Hundreds of blind and vision-impaired people marched to Federation Square in Melbourne on August 18 to show their opposition to the decision by Vision Australia.
Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney said the entire union movement was behind the battle by the Blind Workers’ Union and United Voice.
Kearney said: “This is an appalling decision by Vision Australia that puts profits before people. The warehouses provide meaningful employment to blind and vision-impaired people who have very few other options in the job market.
“Vision Australia should show some respect and reverse its decision to close the warehouses immediately.”
An online petition to support vision-impaired workers jobs has been launched.
[Messages of support and offers of assistance for vision-impaired workers can be sent to Blind Workers Union spokesperson Martin Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.]