Hundreds of blind people and their supporters have linked white canes in front of Vision Australia Enterprises in support of blind manual workers facing the sack at the end of this month. The white cane chain stretched more than 200 metres, doubling back across the length of the Kensington worksite. It received widespread media coverage.
The crowd, which gathered on September 15, chanted, “people before profits” and “have some vision, change your decision”, referring to Vision Australia’s decision to close its supported employment program because it failed to make a profit.
Australian Council of Trade Unions President Ged Kearney spoke. She condemned the sackings, comparing the low wages paid to workers with disabilities to the $400,000 salary of Vision Australia CEO Ron Hooten.
“Sadly this mentality that places dollar signs above people’s lives has now seeped from the corporate world to the so-called charitable world,” Kearney said.
“This is an organisation that receives more than $30 million of donations every year from well meaning donors, that receives special tax treatment because of its charitable status, that had revenues of $84 million last financial year and net assets of $178 million.”
Greens Senator Richard Di Natale said the Greens would support the blind workers’ struggle.
The Australian Workers Union also supported the rally.
Several blind workers also spoke, including Blind Workers Union President Margaret Shanahan and union spokesperson and vice-president Martin Stewart.
In a rousing speech, Stewart said: “Hands off the most vulnerable workers in Australia, hands off people who are blind and vision impaired. We say change your decision and have respect for the donations you receive.
“Show bags are inside this building, that’s what they’re working on now, for the Melbourne Show. Vision Australia says it will be the last time. We say no! We say [blind people will be packing show bags] next year, and the year after, and the year after.
“We are standing with our canes — not as a guiding implement today, but disgracefully as a protection against our own organisation ... Vision Australia let me tell you, charity begins at home, it won’t end here.”
The Blind Workers Union called for supporters to continue speaking out against the sackings by writing to newspapers and Vision Australia board members before a further board meeting on September 24. The blind workers also launched a fighting fund and collected donations from protesters.
[Green Left Weekly readers can support the Blind Workers Union fighting fund by depositing money into the Blind Workers Union of Victoria Commonwealth Bank account, BSB: 063-001, Account number: 00921366.]