Should all disabled workers earn at least the minimum wage?

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Some workers with disability are paid as little as $3/hr. The Fair Work Commission is negotiating a new wage calculator that might see pay increases for these workers.

Thirty-three-year-old Brenden Hubbard has Down Syndrome, and for the past 15 years he’s been working on the factory floor at Greenacres Disability Services, an Australian Disability Enterprise (ADE) with specially-trained support staff on hand to help workers.

Brenden “has no language” his mother, Kathy Hubbard, tells The Feed. “He's functioning at the level of a four to six-year-old.”

A wage assessment tool or wage calculator is used to determine what percentage of the minimum wage an ADE worker like Brenden should receive. The calculator factors in three questions: 1) How much support does a worker need? 2) How complex is the nature of the work? 3) How productive are they likely to be for the company? Based on these calculations, Brendan earns $3.06 per hour.

“The wage Brenden’s getting now is a fair wage for his productivity,” says Kathy Hubbard. “Proud as I am of him, I’m aware of what he needs to keep him safe and keep him on-task.”

ADE workers receiving the Disability Support Pension can earn up to $172 a fortnight before their earnings affect their pension.

Campaigners from Wage Justice Australia think workers in ADEs deserve to be paid more. In 2016, ADE workers won a $100-million dollar payout after the Federal Court found one of the wage calculators used for assessing wages resulted in widespread underpayment. The Fair Work Commission is now negotiating a new wage calculator for ADEs.

martin wren, disability workers, ade
"If the only reason a business survives is because it exploits the labour of a marginalised group, we have a problem."
SBS

Some worry that any changes could force already cash-strapped ADEs to shut up shop. 

For the majority of our people with disabilities who work at Greenacres, they're not able to find employment in open employment. A lot of the work that we do is not overly profitable and is now done by new technology. It's been outsourced to China and other third world countries,” says Greenacres CEO Chris Christodoulou.

But Martin Wren from Nova Employment believes the current ADE model is keeping capable workers underemployed and underpaid. He’d like to see more of those workers transition into the open employment market, where the minimum wage would guarantee they earn more money.

Martin says he believes some workers are held back by low expectations that create a “self-fulfilling set of circumstances in which you didn't think they could do much, so they didn't do much.”

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If you have personal experience with the issues raised in this story, we're keen to hear about it. Please email a few lines about your experience to: thefeed@sbs.com.au