Mitch Fifield is one of the best ministers in the Abbot government- you would have to be to have piloted the National Disability Insurance Scheme unscathed through the tsunami of the recent federal budget. But he has been badly advised if he blames the situation of employees with disabilities in sheltered workshops or Australian Disability Enterprises on the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Let me tell you the real story.
This government, and the previous two, have continually dragged their feet on this issue. In the late 90s, when the Business Services Wage Assessment Tool was being developed, representatives of the Commission told the government that the tool was probably discriminatory. As Deputy Disability Commissioner (1999 to 2005) and Commissioner (2005-2014) I regularly reminded them. They chose to take no action.
Mean while, about half of Australia’s ADE’s have operated, and continue to operate, using other wage assessment tools which were not discriminatory. Most of those come out with assessments which result in employees being paid higher wages than those assessed using the BSWAT.
When the Federal Court found the BSWAT to be discriminatory in 2012 I encouraged the government to support ADE’s to begin transitioning to other wage assessment tools. Instead of doing that, they sought leave from the High Court to overturn the Federal Court decision.
When the High Court did not grant leave I suggested that they apply to the Human Rights Commission for an exemption from the DDA while the transitioning took place. They took almost twelve months to lodge that application.
Minister Fifield said last week that the Commission denied the exemption application. That is not correct. The Commission granted the application, but for a period of twelve months rather than three years.
In granting a twelve month exemption, the Commission balanced the threatening of jobs against the very low wages received, and weighed the time government and ADE’s had already had to act on this matter. The Commission was not persuaded that more than twelve months would be necessary. The government had indicated in its submissions that the transition process had commenced. Other non-discriminatory assessment tools exist. The Commission wanted to ensure that the conduct which had been found to be discriminatory continued for the shortest time realistically possible.
The assertion that “there was very little consultation with the people who would be affected by the decision before it was handed down” is not true. As Commissioner, I made sure that I met with parties on all sides of the exemption process- government, National Disability Services representing the ADE’s, and organisations representing employees with disabilities. I also visited a number of ADE’s themselves, and spoke to many employees with disabilities.
In the last few years the government did economic modelling on ADE’s. This showed that some of them were not economically viable, and would be unsustainable whether the BSWAT was discriminatory or not.
It is true that ADE employees are in receipt of the Disability Support Pension- an amount of less than $20’000 a year. This does not make an hourly rate of $1, $2000 a year on top of the DSP, irrelevant. I support the concept of the “dignity of work”, but it needs to be matched by the “dignity of a fair wage”.
To suggest that without ADE’s many people would just “stay home” is an over-simplification. As the National Disability Insurance Scheme which Minister Fifield did such a great job of protecting rolls out, people with disabilities will gain far more choice and control, and be enabled to participate in a wider range of community activities.
The way to give people with disabilities “the best chance possible for a fulfilling life through employment” is for government to have a jobs plan. They could begin, as I have also said since the late 90s, by improving the percentage of people with disabilities employed in the Commonwealth Public Service. This figure has dropped from 7,5 % to 2,9 % in that time, when there are 15% of people with disabilities of working age. by not developing a jobs plan to accompany its welfare plan, the government risks kicking a spectacular own-goal for Team Australia in the hard-fought game of economic success.
The Human Rights Commission was strongly criticised by both the government and ADE’s on one side, and employee advocates on the other side, for granting a twelve-month rather than a three-year, exemption. Rather than idealism, or misplaced eutopianism, I would describe that as a realistic path towards appropriate change, along which the government and ADE’s still appear reluctant to walk.
First published in The Australian. This is the unedited version.