Workers with disabilities ripped off

November 24, 2010

Workers with disabilities are speaking out against the Supported Wage System (SWS), which encourages employers to legally underpay workers with disabilities.

The federal government’s Job Access program markets SWS as a progressive innovation by burying it among more egalitarian policies such as funding workplace accessibility improvements.

The Job Access website said the SWS was “a process that allows employers to pay less than the award wage by matching a person's productivity with a fair wage”.

The Centrelink website said: “This system incorporates a process of productivity-based wage assessment. For example, if a person involved in Supported Wage System is assessed as having a productivity level of 70 per cent compared to co-workers performing the same duties, the worker and the employer can agree to ongoing employment at a pay rate of 70 per cent of the normal rate.”

Job Access trumpeted the case studies of two workers with disabilities, who earn 70% and 80% of their respective award’s wages, as SWS “successes”.

One of these workers was described by her employer as being “able to perform her duties with limited supervision, is reliable and is considered one of our best back area staff, able to cope with busy workloads and she demonstrates that she enjoys her job.”

Job Access tells employers “people with disability can have fewer accidents at work—the workers compensation costs for people with disability can be as low as four per cent of the workers compensation costs of other employees …. people with disability can have lower absenteeism and often take less sick leave than other employees …. employing people with disability can build staff morale, raise management awareness of workplace practices and conditions, and increase customer and staff loyalty.”

However, this is not what employers and governments consider when deciding how much to pay employees with disabilities. According to a Fair Work Australia (FWA) report released in February, workers with disabilities are paid according to productivity as measured by a Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) assessor.

And – wait for it – “an employee assessed at 10 per cent capacity would have a minimum wage of 10 per cent of the relevant classification wage specified in the award.”

Since its inception in 2005 about 5000 assessments have been carried out on workers with disabilities annually. Most SWS participants are male and aged between 15 and 25, mainly living in Queensland, NSW and Victoria.

They typically have an “intellectual learning disability,” and work an average of 20 hours per week, mostly as trades assistants or factory hands.

Assessments of capacity between 40% and 70% are most common, and the average assessed capacity is 53.3%. This half-time, underpaid work effectively means that a young man with a learning disability can expect to earn about a quarter of the wages of his non-disabled peers in open employment.

Before the SWS assessment to determine what percentage of the award a worker will earn, the worker may be employed on a trial basis of up to 16 weeks for as little as $71 per week.

This provision effectively grants employers the right to employ workers with disabilities on a casual basis at Third World rates of pay, with no chance of ongoing employment if they fail their “trial”.

The FWA report said employees with disabilities are regularly reassessed by DEEWR “to ensure the employee’s level of productivity is accurately reflected in their remuneration”.

Workers with disabilities who approached Green Left Weekly said this has nothing to do with granting workers with disabilities incremental pay increases.

In fact, some workers with disabilities had their wages further slashed after reassessment for failing to keep up with their employer’s productivity race. Even underpaid workers at sheltered workshops have had their wages slashed when they were brought under the SWS.

Workers who have begun speaking out against this system are disappointed that some union leaders are supporting the SWS in the mistaken belief that it gives job seekers with disabilities a fair go.

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