Sharan Burrow spoke at at the NDS Employment Forum (Brisbane) and talked about the role unions have played in improving job access for people with disabilities, and delivers an outlook for the future.

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. I’d like to speak with you today about the role that unions have played in the past in improving access to jobs for people with disabilities and in improving the quality of those jobs. I also want to talk about the improvements we would like to see in the future.

First, I’d like to tell you a little of the history of the ACTU and workers with disability.  It has been over 25 years since the ACTU first formally recognised the need for the union movement to do more for workers with disability.  In 1981, the ACTU Congress endorsed the Disabled Workers Charter.

This charter recognised that the trade union movement has a clear responsibility to pursue policies and practices aimed at the elimination of discrimination against disabled workers. It supported the objectives of full participation and equality for people with disabilities and the right to paid work.

It called for a range of measures to be taken in support of these objectives, including improving access to vocational education and training; removing barriers in the workplace; providing adequate income support; investigating the potential for flexible work arrangements to facilitate access for workers with disabilities to open employment; and adequately regulating what were then referred to as sheltered workshops. It called upon trade unions to adopt a range of measures in support of disabled workers.

In 1989, the ACTU was a member of the Steering Committee that oversaw the Labour and Disability Workforce Consultancy, led by Chris Ronalds. The report produced by this consultancy, National Employment Initiatives for People with a Disability, identified the major barriers preventing people with a disability entering the general labour market. These included the type of job; job design, training and on-going support; and income support, including wages.

The report identified limited access to existing industrial arrangements as a major impediment. It recommended that a new system should be developed to provide for payment of fair and equitable wages based on measurement of the workers’ skills and productive capacities.

The Ronalds Report led, in 1994, to the development of the Supported Wage System (SWS). The SWS was developed on a tripartite basis to create job opportunities for people with disabilities.

In July 1994, the Full Bench of the AIRC heard an application jointly made by the ACTU, ACCI and Commonwealth Government for the insertion of a model clause covering the employment of workers with disability in a range of awards. Since this time, the SWS model clause has been inserted into many federal awards.

The SWS model clause provides for an assessment of an employee’s productive capacity through a transparent and reliable assessment process.  Eligible workers receive a percentage of the minimum rate of pay prescribed by the award or agreement for the class of work the person is performing.  Importantly, the SWS provides a method of assessing a worker against the minimum classification standards established in awards and agreements.

In 2002, I addressed the inaugural national conference on Workers with a Disability. This conference was convened by the ACTU and attended by 70 workers with disabilities, unions and advocacy groups. This conference was a turning point in terms of unions better understanding and responding to the needs of workers with a disability.

Leading up to our 2003 National Congress, we recognised that our policy on workers with disability from 1981 was out-dated. At our 2003 Congress, we adopted a new one. Our 2003 policy is a statement of commitment by the ACTU and affiliated unions in regard to the rights of workers with disability.

The policy recognises that people with disability have been marginalised and continue to suffer extensive systemic discrimination. They encounter serious obstacles to obtaining and holding employment, and in securing opportunities to lead a full life through access to education and training. In our policy, the ACTU and unions commit to working to improve employment outcomes for workers with disability.

Our 2003 policy recognises that workers with disability have the right to:

  • Jobs which offer fair wages, job security and prospects for advancement
  • Safe and healthy workplaces
  • Education and training and skill development to maximize individual potential
  • Employment that is free from exploitation, harassment and discrimination
  • appropriate resources to facilitate their full participation in the workplace environment and in the broader community
  • The right to join, be active in and be represented by a union, both on an individual and collective basis, without fear of victimisation
  • In our policy, we commit to implementing a range of measures designed to increase our efforts to improve job opportunities, and wages and conditions for people with disabilities. This includes assisting unions and labour councils to organise and represent workers with a disability.

    The union movement opposed the Howard Government’s Welfare to Work changes. The scheme led to lower incomes for many on disability support. It also provided very little motivation to enter paid employment.

    The unions campaigned strongly against the Howard Government’s unfair work laws. Work Choices took away job security, and reduced wages and working conditions.

    The combination of Welfare to Work and Work Choices impacted particularly harshly on the most vulnerable members of our community, including on many workers with disability.

    Looking forward
    Looking forward, we must do more than just undo the damage inflicted by the Coalition Government’s harsh and discriminatory reforms in social security and industrial relations.

    Australia continues to have an unacceptably low level of participation in the workforce among people with disabilities. Since 1993, the labour force participation rate of people with disabilities has fallen, while the rate for people without disabilities has risen. In 2003, 53.2 per cent of people with disabilities participated in the labour force as compared to 80.6 per cent of those without a disability. The unemployment rate for people with disability is 8.6 per cent, compared to a rate of 5 per cent for people without disability. In 2003, the OECD ranked Australia 13th out of 19 countries on the employment rate for all people with disability.

    Women with disabilities are less likely to be in the workforce than men with disabilities. While the unemployment rate for women without disabilities has decreased significantly over the last 5 years, the unemployment rate of women with disabilities has gone the other way and actually increased.

    These figures suggest that we can do much better in assisting persons with disability find and retain decent work.

    The ACTU has welcomed the Rudd Government’s Social Inclusion Agenda, including its commitment to increasing participation in employment among people with disability. We also welcome the Government’s commitment to, and commencement of work on, a National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy. We look forward to Australia ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

    There are a number of areas in which improvements are needed and in which the union movement can help.

    Productivity-based wages
    The first is productivity-based wages. Many workers with disability obtain jobs at full wages, either the minimum wage or above. However some workers with disability who work in open employment cannot work at full wages due to the effects of disability on their productive capacity.

    As I mentioned earlier, the ACTU has played a key role in developing and maintaining the Supported Wage System.

    This is the most common method for setting productivity-based wages for employees with disabilities in open employment. We believe it is the fairest and most reasonable and transparent system. We think the SWS is a successful and positive measure which facilitates the employment of people with disability.

    The ACTU believes that all workers with disability employed in Business Services should also have their wages assessed in accordance with a reliable, transparent and fair wage assessment tool.

    There is a history of union involvement in seeking to achieve fair wages for people employed in supported employment. Standard 9 of the Quality Assurance System for Business Services requires Business Services to pay award-based wages. Unions have worked with individual business services to develop the wage assessment tool used in those services. The LHMU and the ACTU were members of the Business Services Wage Assessment Tool Reference Group, which led to the formal release of the BSWAT in April 2004.

    Since Work Choices, the Australian Fair Pay Commission has had responsibility for setting minimum wages for employees with disabilities who qualify for the disability support pension. The ACTU supported the creation of a special Australian Pay and Classification Scale (AFPC) for Supported Employment Services.

    We lent our support on the basis that the making of a special pay scale would continue the progress made by the Industrial Relations Commission towards including all Business Services wage assessment tools in an award and extending the award to the Business Services sector.

    The ACTU has participated in the Fair Pay Commission’s Disability Roundtable, which provides advice to the Commission in relation to wages for people with disability. We have been consulted by the Commission regarding the inclusion of new wage assessment tools for use by Business Services, and have provided advice as to whether the proposed tools meet the principle of providing award-based wages.

    The ACTU is keen to ensure that the wage assessment tools used by Business Services provide fair and consistent outcomes for workers with disability. We believe these tools play an important role in facilitating a transition path between supported and mainstream or open employment.

    Workplace culture
    We still need to see significant improvement in workplace culture. People with disabilities continue to face serious obstacles in finding and retaining jobs. There is still significant discrimination from employers and other employees. Workers with disabilities are too often given marginal jobs far below their capacity where they have no security and no opportunities for training or advancement.

    An important set of barriers to further participation in the workforce is employer misconceptions over the costs and risks associated with employing a person with disability. Last year, the Australian Safety and Compensation council found no evidence to support the suggestion that workers with disability are more likely to be injured at work than other employees. The ACTU strongly supports the dissemination of educational material to employers so as to dispel these myths.

    The ACTU supports an education programme in disability awareness raising or disability competency training for employers and co-workers, and an information campaign about the benefits to business of employing people with disability. The Government has an important role to play here in actively promoting a positive message about employing workers with disability and in promoting best practice to a broad audience through a major education campaign.

    Equitable access to vocational education and training

    Education and opportunities for skill development are critical to enhancing participation in employment. Training and skill development opportunities are integral in creating greater job security, and decent wages and conditions of employment for workers with disabilities. We need action to overcome the continuing under-representation of people with disabilities in the VET system.

    The ACTU believes that there needs to be a higher priority placed on policies which allow greater numbers of workers with disability to access skill development. The existence of adequate support services is critical to raising levels of participation.

    Income security
    Income security is vital for everyone, and is particularly important for workers with disability in part-time work or receiving low earnings. The ACTU strongly opposed the Coalition Government’s punitive Welfare to Work policies. Rather than encouraging people into jobs, these reforms punished people who are temporarily unable to work, or who are amongst the most vulnerable people in our community.

    The ACTU believes in the development of a fair welfare system that encourages people into work and supports them where this is not possible. We believe that workers with disability are entitled to ongoing government support to allow them to achieve full participation in community life. The community has a clear responsibility to support people with disability.

    The ACTU believes that a guaranteed safety net income would encourage people with disability to undertaken vocational training, job search and employment. We believe that a basic income guarantee is a more constructive way to address the cyclical nature of welfare to work for many people, and may provide the confidence for full-time participation in the workforce over time.

    The ACTU believes that a basic income guarantee should be considered as a longer term goal. In the interim, we support the ACOSS finding that the risk of exclusion from income support could be reduced by introducing more flexibility into activity requirements within a consistent national policy framework, especially to take greater account of barriers to work among people with disabilities.

    We cannot achieve high participation rates if people with disability have work-related expenses that are higher than their potential wages. We also cannot achieve high participation rates if the tax system operates to discourage people with disability from entering employment. The ACTU supports a review of the interaction between the tax and social security systems to remove any inconsistencies and disincentives.

    Access to workplace flexibility
    The ACTU supports the right of people with disability to request work flexibility to facilitate employment. This is particularly important for workers who acquire a disability after commencing employment and for employees with a disability of an episodic nature.

    The HREOC Workability II Report identified a range of flexibility options that might assist sustain employment for people with disability, such as part-time work; job sharing; mark up time; periods of respite during the day and so on. The ACTU is participating in discussions at the national level on measures to improve workplace flexibility. We support the inclusion of flexibility provisions in enterprise bargaining claims and negotiations for workers with disability covered by these industrial instruments.

    Supporting the disability services workforce
    The Deputy Prime Minister recently observed that “we need investments not just in those communities that are socially excluded, but in those communities that are tasked with addressing, working and assisting those that are socially excluded.”

    Unions play an important role in organising and representing disability services workers.  The delivery of quality services to people with a disability depends on Australia having a disability services workforce that is adequately remunerated, and provided with appropriate opportunities for skill development, training and career development. A number of our affiliates are campaigning strongly for improved wages and conditions in this sector.

    The Australian union movement works to improve the quality of working life and living standards for all members of the community. But we recognise that people with disability face unique and ongoing barriers to accessing employment and to enjoying fair wages and decent working conditions. Trade unions can play an important role in challenging this ongoing exclusion through contributions in the workplace, negotiations with employers, and through our broader role in society.

    The ACTU looks forward to working together with government, employers and disability service providers to address the systemic exclusion of people with a disability that has been a feature of Australia’s labour market for far too long.

    Thank you.