Disability, employment and inequity: it's time to do more than the bare minimum

George Disney suggests some policy solutions to improve working conditions for all Australians, irrespective of their disability status.

The Gender pay gap is an issue which has received a substantial amount of attention both in research and policy discussions and reforms. However far less attention has been paid to the Disability pay gap. People with disability in Australia face not only disadvantages in accessing employment such as discrimination in hiring practices but also in even securing minimum wage pay to which non-disabled Australians are entitled. Currently paying people with disability below the minimum wage is legal in Australia, yet illegal for a non-disabled person.

People with disabilities face disadvantage in the labour market. The evidence of lower rates of employment and pay, for example, is overwhelming and points to a society disorganised for social equality. Our own research has shown, despite disability being a key focus at each level of government, progress toward a just and fair society is glacial. Recently, we have been thinking about ways we can frame and present our research findings on disability and pay in a way which puts the onus back on government and politicians. Instead of presenting the evidence we generate as a way of monitoring progress we want to help spark the following questions: How much is a fair level of pay for people with disabilities? Should everyone be entitled to a minimum wage? And what level of social inequity are we, as a society, willing to accept?

Let’s start with the current state of the labour market. Australian workers are entitled to some protections, which need to be built on. Holiday pay, sick pay and public holidays, in theory at least, provide many workers with a level of dignity in the workplace and free time to spend with their friends and family.  Of these protections, I’d imagine the most well-known widely supported is the minimum wage. Even though some irresponsible employers flout wage protection law, when this is made public there is a degree of public anger and sometimes workers receive their illegally withheld pay that they are entitled to. However, people with disabilities are not always entitled to this same protection. Many thousands are legally paid less than the minimum wage in supported employment via Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs) and through the supported wage system. There are benefits to this type of supported employment. ADEs provide valuable work experience and opportunity to people who are all too often locked out of the labour market. But they have been criticised - employees are commonly paid just a few dollars an hour.

Which brings us back to the question I posed earlier – should every employee be entitled to a minimum wage? And if the answer is “yes” then why have we deliberately designed employment so some people with disability barely get paid enough an hour to buy a coffee? Afterall, the income someone receives from working in an ADE could be a vital contribution to a household budget and represent the difference between turning the heating on or not on a cold night.

Paradoxically I think the example of choosing to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage illustrates how we could choose not to! If ADEs can’t structure their business to pay a minimum wage, then government could step in and pay the rest. Or a tax credit could be applied. While only a small proportion of people with disabilities work in an ADE, this simple government action of making the minimum wage truly universal at the same time as protecting jobs could be a good starting point. Afterall government does prop up a number of industries around the country.

As a team of public health researchers why are we interested in this? Previous research shows there is a strong association between working conditions and the health of people with disabilities. Improving working conditions will improve health across society and close unnecessary and avoidable gaps in health. This is good news for politicians and policy makers! There are policy and legislative solutions which have the double advantage of improving people’s living standards and health.  For example, a living wage, set pay ratios between the highest and lowest paid within organisations and legislating to increase job security by ending sham self-employment contracts – are all well within reach of a society as prosperous as Australia.

At a minimum these improvements to working conditions should be guaranteed for all people, whether they have a disability or not. Such measures, alongside targeted support and workplace adjustments for people with disabilities could start to close unjust gaps in pay and health for people with disabilities.

Dr George Disney is a social epidemiologist from the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, and the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Disability and Health.

Originally published on Power to Persuade, 12 July 2019

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George Disney