Transcript - 5AA Radio Adelaide - 16 January 2014 > Mitch Fifield, Liberal Senator for Victoria


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Transcript - 5AA Radio Adelaide - 16 January 2014





16 January 2014


E & OE

Subject: Australian Disability Enterprises, Business Services Wage Assessment Tool, Payment Scheme


Mitch Fifield, the Assistant Minister for Social Services is on the line. How are you Assistant Minister, and may I address you so?


Mitch is fine Jeremy.  Very well indeed, thanks.


What do you say of this, is it a good thing to have a sheltered workshop and people on a dollar an hour? Or is it exploitation?


Look, I’m a big supporter of Disability Enterprises, as they are now called. There are some people who will never be in a situation where they can work in open employment. And the alternative, if we didn’t have Australian Disability Enterprises, would be that they’d be at home, often sitting watching TV.  So, Disability Enterprises, as you quite rightly say, give the individual the dignity of work. They also provide a social life for them. Many people who work in Disability Enterprises, their friendships come out of the place where they work, as they do with you and I.


Well, surely the crux question though has got to be – if Disability Enterprises are making money from the efforts and the enterprise of these people, why don’t they just pay them a fair and reasonable hourly rate?


Well, Disability Enterprises, most of them, really only just break-even. And what happened, about a decade ago, was that an award-based system for people who have significant intellectual disabilities was developed, in recognition of the fact that their ability to contribute in the workplace is different to that of other people. So it’s in effect a pro-rata wage, in recognition of their capacity to contribute in the workplace.  If you had people who work in Disability Enterprises paid at the same rate as other people, in effect, you wouldn’t have Disability Enterprises. They wouldn’t exist. 

So, it’s an effort to reach a situation where people can have a job, where these Enterprises can be sustainable. But it’s a mistake to look at just the hourly rate that the individual gets.  You’ve got to look at the package of things that they get. People in Disability Enterprises will usually also be on part of the Disability Support Pension, they’ll often usually have a health benefits card as well. So you’ve really got to look at the package of supports that they get – the Disability Support Pension, the health benefits card and also the money that they get paid through the Disability Enterprise.


And that makes a kind of living wage when you toss it all up.  What is this wage assessment scheme, which is apparently going to give people access to a one-off payment?  What’s all that about?


There are a number of wage assessment tools which have been worked out over the years to determine the appropriate wage level given the capacity of the individual in the workplace. There’s dozens of them.  But there’s one particularly tool, called the Business Services Wage Assessment Tool, which about half of all supported employees are assessed under. And there was a court case a couple of years back, where Mr Nojin and Mr Prior, who were supported employees in Disability Enterprises, took a court case and said, ‘look, we don’t think that this wage assessment tool accurately assesses our capacity.  We think we’ve been discriminated against.’ And the Federal Court found that they had indirectly been discriminated against, that they probably should have been paid more.

So what we’ve said is, we recognise that there is an issue with this particular wage assessment tool which the Government had a hand in developing. We recognise that, we want to do something about that and so there's two things that we’re doing. The first is to set up this payment scheme, where people can make application if they feel that they have been disadvantaged, if they feel that they’ve had an economic loss. That will be considered and there will be payments going to eligible people.

The other part of it is that we have applied to the Human Rights Commission for a temporary exemption from the Disability Discrimination Act applying to this wage assessment tool, in order to give the Government and Disability Enterprises a chance to work out what a better assessment tool is.  These Disability Enterprises, we don’t want to have them in a situation where they are shut down due to uncertainty. So we want to seek that temporary exemption from the Human Rights Commission so we’ve got a chance to come up with a better tool.


Mitch, how many people are involved?


There are about 20,000 people in Australia who work in Disability Enterprises, and about half of those people would have been assessed using this particular wage assessment tool. 


So there will be a bill that you guys are going to have to foot to put things right, I guess?


There will be.  It’s difficult to quantify that at the moment because we don’t know how many people are going to make application. We don’t know the individual circumstances. But you’d have to say that it would be in the tens of millions of dollars. 

But, we’re doing it because we want these employees to have certainty. We want the Enterprises that they work for to have certainty. And we also want their families to have certainty, because jobs at Disability Enterprises also provide respite for the parents of these individuals.


But you are absolutely sure that these Enterprises are not profiteering on the back of disadvantaged people?


You can never say that there isn’t an individual who’s not doing the wrong thing in a particular Enterprise. But I am confident that these are good businesses, they are providing good jobs for individuals. And I’ve been to a lot of Disability Enterprises and they’re great workplaces. They’re doing good, productive things. They are genuine workplaces, they are genuine businesses. And that goes to the dignity of work. You want to have that sort of environment for as many people as possible. 

I’m not someone who has any time for debates as to whether everyone should be in open employment versus separate employment.  For me, it’s all about the individual and what works for the individual.  If supported employment works for them, terrific. If open employment works for them, terrific.


Mitch, thank you.


Thanks Jeremy.  Good to talk.


Happy New Year.  Nice to have you on the show. Mitch Fifield, Assistant Minister for Social Services.