Disability and Work: Fair Pay is a Disability Rights Issue

Originally published at FWD/Forward.

For people with disabilities who work, exploitation is a common fact of life. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Many nations have programmes allowing companies to hire people with disabilities at rates below the minimum wage. These programmes are often referred to as ‘occupational therapy’ or ‘sheltered workshop’ programs, with the idea that work, for the disabled person, is a form of ‘therapy.’ Some of these organisations have very negative reputations because of a history of worker abuse and exploitation. The thing is, actually, work is work, no matter who is doing it, and unfair pay is unfair pay, period.

Unfair pay is a disability rights issue because, right now, in countries all over the world, the law freely permits unfair wages for people with disabilities. Unfair pay is structured right into social programmes designed for people with disabilities and it’s not only tolerated, but encouraged. Companies are told that they can hire people with disabilities more cheaply than nondisabled people, and enjoy a little public relations boost by ‘charitably’ providing ‘productive work’ to people with disabilities.

Disability and work are fraught issues; here in the United States, on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, clear disparities and problems can be seen (h/t Liz Henry), and these problems are not limited to the US. Some people with disabilities want to work and cannot; because of their disabilities, because they become ineligible for benefits they need if they start working, because they cannot get accommodations, for a myriad of other reasons. Some people are working when they should not be, because they have to in order to survive. And some disabled employees are treated as a cheap source of disposable labour, as I discussed in the post talking about abuse of intellectually disabled workers at an Iowa meatpacking plant.

So, I was horrified when I encountered a story about Karen Smith, a woman with disabilities working in Geelong, Australia. Smith worked for what is known as a ‘supported employment programme’ for over a decade packing jam jars. Her wages, until recently, were $6 AUD per hour. According to Fair Work Australia, the current minimum wage in Australia is $15 AUD per hour for a 38 hour week.

However, Karingal, the organisation she works for, requested a federal government review of their programme and wage policies. The outcome of that review? A decision that Smith was being paid too much, and her wages should be cut to $2 AUD/hour. The only reason they weren’t cut lower was because internal policies at Karingal limit pay cuts.

The original government recommendation? $1.20 AUD per hour. The same trick was used in Iowa to keep wages for disabled workers low; the argument goes that people should be paid for the amount of work they do relative to what a nondisabled worker would do, evidently, and the government decided that Smith only did $1.20 AUD worth of work per hour. That is less than 10% of the minimum wage.

Karingal, which employs 125 disabled workers, rejected suggestions it was exploiting Ms Smith.

The company claims it runs the supported employment program at a loss, while its employees enjoy being associated with the scheme.

I see this claim made a lot by organisations that do this sort of thing. They argue that they are providing a service, they’re running at a loss, really no profit at all in it, truly, but I find that hard to believe. This is not to say that these organisations are rolling in money or anything ludicrous like that, they are obviously not, but I find the setup rather suspect. Workers who are involved in such programmes are not paid directly by their employers. The programme pays them, out of funds paid by employers to the programme. There’s a bit of a black box effect here that makes it difficult to see how much money the programme is receiving for a given employee’s labour. How are we to know that these programmes aren’t exploiting people when it can be hard to find evidence to the contrary?

“We’re actually paying them more than what they’re worth because people like to work and like to be associated with it. We run (supported employment) at a loss in effect.” (source)

I’ve heard this narrative before too, and somehow it always feels very patronising to me. Yes, some people do like to work. Yes, people are trained to believe that they have more value to society when they work (and people who don’t work are shamed and told they are worthless). There’s a lot of value attached to a particular kind of ‘productivity’ as defined by nondisabled people. But, somehow, these statements always come out to me as seeming a bit, well, like patting people on the head while they are tasked with repetitive and pointless things and saying ‘well, the dear lambs like to feel special, you know.’

Fortunately, this case got a great deal of attention, and Smith’s wages were restored after a great deal of media brouhaha, although she is still not being offered the minimum wage for her work. Disabled workers are being exploited all over the world with unfair wages; this case happened to get some traction in the media, but what about all the cases that do not? Getting fair pay is an important aspect of receiving respect and fair treatment by society; if our own governments legalise unequal pay for our labour, how can we hope to combat ableist attitudes in the workplace, let alone in society in general?

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About s.e. smith
s.e. smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with a focus on social justice issues based in Northern California.

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