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Newman OnLine: Sheltered workshops face extinction

Newman On-Line: Sheltered workshops face extinction

This week, Newman Online looks at the Labour Party’s Disabled Persons Employment Promotion (Repeal and Related Matters) Bill, and what it means for sheltered workshops throughout New Zealand.

It is widely feared that the Labour Party’s Disabled Persons Employment Promotion (Repeal and Related Matters) Bill – that is presently being considered by Parliament’s Social Services Select Committee – will force most of the country’s sheltered workshops to close down. I understand that only 10 or so are expected to survive once the bill’s minimum wage requirement is implemented. That means that the majority of the 3,700 or so disabled workers who presently work in sheltered employment will lose their jobs.

Promoted by the unions, the notion of fair pay for fair work that is at the heart of the bill appears on the surface to be quite reasonable. And if sheltered workshops were indeed exploiting their workers, then it would be difficult to argue against such a proposal. The problem is however, that the main issue of contention is not exploitation, but productivity.

The majority of the workers at sheltered workshops suffer from disabilities that impair their productivity. Many have tried to work in open employment, but find that they need the type of additional supports – such as medical or hygiene assistance – that are provided as a matter of course by sheltered workshops.

It’s like Sam, a bright, young electronic equipment operator, who on a good day is as productive as the best in the workforce. But, being autistic, on a bad day, he needs all of the patience, understanding and support that his sheltered workshop managers can provide.

While Sam is paid a full wage by the workshop, the majority of the other workers, like Joe, who has Downs Syndrome and struggles each day to pack his plastic bags, are paid only an allowance on top of his disability benefit. It is these people that the unions and the Labour Party have in their sights.

Joe has been working at his sheltered workshop for 20 years. He loves going to work and is immensely proud of the ‘wage’ that he earns. Once the bill becomes law, workers like Joe will be assessed by a labour inspector every six months and given a ‘productivity rating’. That rating will then be used to calculate an hourly wage, which his workshop will be required to pay.

The difficulty is that sheltered workshops operate in the not-for-profit sector, with work contracts that are largely subsidised from within their local communities. That means that they will only be able to fund additional wage demands if they can achieve an increase in their bottom-line profitability, either through productivity gains or additional financial support.

One such sheltered workshop has calculated that the effect of the new requirements on their workers will be devastating. Having 120 workers with 20 on a full minimum wage, once the new law comes into force, they will be able to pay another 20 a full wage, but will be forced to send the other 80 workers home.

Concerned about the fact that, in spite of there being almost 4,000 disabled workers with maybe 10,000 family members who stand to have their lives turned upside down by this bill, only 16 submissions were received by our select committee, last week I surveyed both workshops as well as workers and their families, asking whether or not they have been consulted over the bill. The answer was a resounding “no”!

Imagine if Labour decided to pass a law banning the game of rugby without consulting players or fans! There would be such a public uproar that the plan would have to be abandoned.

In this situation, the only reason that Labour can get away without properly consulting those key players – who will be massively affected by the bill – is that workers and their families are an extremely vulnerable group with a weak voice, who are very susceptible to bullying by the Government. Even the workshops are not in a strong position, being totally dependent on the goodwill of the government for their existence. Having said that, I am aware that a number of them have been brave and spoken out, but as a result some have received warnings that they should not do it again!

If the bill progresses according to Labour’s plan, many elderly parents will face the situation where their intellectually disabled son or daughter - who loves their job at a workshop - will no longer be able to work there, but will be forced back home.

While some may be able to spend a few hours a week involved in ‘community participation’ – the Government’s replacement for sheltered employment that involves activities such as art or craft that don’t include any form of ‘work’- the reality is that the bill will place their burden of care back onto parents who may well be elderly, fragile, and worried sick about their son or daughter.

Both Canada and Australia have gone down this same track, with disastrous outcomes, that is until both governments finally realised that they had a responsibility to properly consult workers and parents over their options. As a result, they were forced to accept that for many workers, economic and social participation through workshops was far more important to them than wage issues. The Labour Party should learn from their experiences, not repeat them in New Zealand.

Finally, I would like to share with you an address by Mary Walsh, a mother whose 39 year-old disabled son had just passed away, to an Australian Parliamentary Select Committee dealing with reform of the disability sector. She described his 15 years of ‘employment’ at a sheltered workshop - a safe place where he was accepted for who he was - as a time that provided a job, security, friendship, dignity, self-esteem, and a contribution to society.

Mary explained how in the last two years of his life, the commercialisation of the workshop and his increasing support needs meant that he had to revert to day care. She described how this had created a sense of failure for him and resulted in two years of trauma for the family and the providers, as everyone struggled to deal with his loss of esteem, depression, increasingly challenging behaviors and his changing social networks.

When he died, unlike his three siblings, he never owned a car, never had a spouse, children, a home of his own or even a mortgage. The three possessions that he valued most dearly were his 10 pin bowling trophies, his Playstation, and the 15-year service pin presented to him by his workshop which he always wore with pride.

If you think they should be consulted, why not share your views with Members of Parliament … before it is too late! All MPs email addresses are in this format: firstname.lastname@parliament.govt.nz

Don’t forget, next weekend is the ACT New Zealand Annual Conference in Auckland …why don't you come and meet Muriel!! Check out the details at http://www.act.org.nz/conference2005

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