WA disability services privatise group homes

Protesters at a rally opposing WA government cuts last year. Photo: Alex Bainbridge.

The Disability Services Commission (DSC) in Western Australia announced last October that it planned to privatise 60% of its accommodation and early childhood intervention services, relinquish its status as a registered training organisation and dismantle its learning and development arm.

At the same time it abolished its Community Development Directorate, dissolved its Post School Options section and made its staff in the Community and Family Living team redundant.

A significant restructure of its various directorates has occurred in preparation for the transition to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Across the country disability services are being privatised — all in the name of transition to the NDIS. Yet there is absolutely no requirement, anywhere in the terms of the NDIS, that services must be delivered outside of government.

WA premier Colin Barnett has labelled the DSC a “stand-out” performer in outsourcing. “Something like 60% of all government spending in the disability area is channelled through non-government community-based organisations,” he told a Western Australian Council of Social Service conference in May 2010. “This leads the nation and is a model I’d like to see replicated across other areas of government.”

Barnett also said that in areas like child protection, only 25% is outsourced and about 18% across government as a whole.

He said: “I know in going down that path some people will say, oh, typical cheap government, trying to get out of their responsibilities and … shift the burden from government and agencies onto the non-government sector.”

He argued the real reason for this shift is that human services are best delivered by community-based organisations because they are closer to the people they are assisting and therefore more responsive, adaptive and flexible.

NON-GOVERNMENT WORKERS EARN LESS

The transfer of services to the private sector has indeed been a great success from a government perspective. Workers in the non-government sector earn on average 30% less than government workers, so in that context it has been an absolute bonanza. Workers in non-government sectors are historically less organised and less able to fight for decent wages and conditions. On top of this, the government becomes simply a purchaser of services: it is not just cheaper, but it is at arm’s length — they can wash their hands of direct liability.

The DSC group home workers are not just concerned for themselves but for the people they support. In some cases, this support has existed for up to 30 years. Many of these residents are ageing and their own family networks have diminished. To now lose the support workers with whom they have shared a good part of their adult life, and who have become like family, is utterly devastating.

Late last year, a number of social trainers who are Civil Service Association (CSA) delegates, and who face losing their jobs in DSC group homes, met with disability services minister Helen Morton. She advised them that if they wanted to remain with the people they should reapply for their own jobs with the new non-government organisations. She had the gall to say that if they really cared about people with disabilities they should not be discouraged by a 30% drop in pay.

There is no doubting the passion the DSC social trainers have for their jobs and for those they support, but why should they have to accept reduced wages and conditions? They are shift workers, they work long hours and spend days away from their homes and families. They have mortgages and bills to pay.

CAMPAIGN TO STOP PRIVATISATION

A group of families, carers and guardians who have family members in DSC group homes has been meeting with the CSA to campaign against the government’s proposed privatisation. They are distressed about the proposed changes because they know the anguish this will cause their loved ones, and they are also angry about the contradictions in the arguments put to them by government.

The minister and DSC have framed the privatisation in glowing rhetoric about choice and control. They say they are giving people who moved into DSC group homes over recent decades a choice to live differently. But do all these people still want to live with a group of others with disability? Would some like to make the transition to living independently in the community with appropriate support?

Giving people with disabilities support to live how and where they want is important. Three decades ago there was no supported living model other than a group home. Those who would prefer to live independently in the community with drop-in support, or who would like to change their group home, need the opportunity to review their situation.
Choice also means that those wanting to stay in the same house and with the same support workers should be able to do so. But individuals and families have been told, repeatedly, that this is the one choice they may not make. This would interfere with the government agenda of getting out of service provision.

On June 26, a petition opposing the privatisation of DSC group homes was tabled in the WA parliament. More than 2500 signatures had been collected by families and DSC staff demanding that individuals choosing to stay in their current home with their current service provider be allowed to make that choice.

RIGHT TO SECURITY

Families and DSC workers gathered outside parliament in Solidarity Park and spoke of their anguish over the government’s decision. One mother told the crowd: “I cannot believe I am having to stand here today fighting for my son’s fundamental right to security, stability and safety.”

“Years of knowledge, experience — the intuitive care that comes with that — would all be lost. Our children cannot speak. At best a couple have very limited sign language. They rely totally on the staff for every basic need. It is essential that we do not forget that while these people are severely disabled, they are still real people with real emotions.

“Our staff are not just basic carers – they are friends who have been alongside through thick and thin, some for many years. So add grief to the mix as well. Grief, not just for one, but multiple losses of relationships; valuable relationships.

“We have been blessed with some of the most beautiful caring people that have given so much of themselves over the years. They have loved our children and respected our position as parents, understanding, without judgement, that it’s not that we don’t love our children enough to care for them at home, but that we can’t.

“We’re struggling with many negative factors such as betrayal: that the people we should turn to in a crisis — DSC — are the very people who are part of the process …

“Anger — toward Minister Morton who put DSC in this position …

“Alarm — that radical decisions are being made without adequate assessments, projections and process planning. And clearly no idea of the impact on the residents or their families …

“Disgust — this is also a social justice issue and our government should be held to account for running roughshod over the most vulnerable people in our society, those that cannot fend for themselves …

“Fear — we are all frightened for our children’s future. If such blatant disregard is shown for their needs now, whilst we are still here to advocate and fight for them, what will they do when we are gone?

“Moreton’s spin is that it’s all about choice. Our home’s parent group has made a clear choice — continue with DSC. Yet this choice is being denied us. I am intent on putting up a damn good fight to have our choices respected.”

In the event the state government is successful in outsourcing these homes to non-government organisations, about 500 public sector jobs will be lost, on top of an estimated 6-7000 state government jobs cut in recent years.

These cuts have to be halted and reversed. To do this, the CSA needs a cross-sectoral campaign by government workers. It needs support from other unions with greater industrial clout and an alliance with those unions covering workers in human services in the non-government sector.

Our campaign respects the dedication and hard work of our colleagues in the non-government sector. They deserve the same pay and conditions as government workers. The push by the state government to drive down the wages and conditions of disability support workers is a sign of their contempt for the dignity of all workers in the sector and for people with disabilities.

It is only with a united struggle that we can reverse the tide of privatisation. All unions in the sector need to come together for a united fight-back, and there’s no place for petty turf wars. Real choice and dignity for both people with disabilities and workers in the sector depends on it.

[The author of this article is a delegate with the CSA at the DSC. They requested anonymity because as a public servant they are not able to publicly criticise the state government. Those interested in supporting the families who are fighting the privatisation of DSC group homes can contact the campaign group on whyfixit14@gmail.com or SMS 0419 951 582.]