Royal commission hears Australian disability enterprise workers paid as little as $ 2.50 an hour

Victorian man Greg Tucker has been doing manual work for the past two years, packing nappies in a warehouse.

For his efforts, he has been paid $ 2.50 an hour.

“I do a lot of work like sealing and packing,” Mr Tucker told the royal commission’s disability.

“At the end of the day… I’m always really exhausted and [have] a bit of a sore back. “

Mr Tucker’s employer has told him that next week, his wage will rise to $ 8.13 an hour.

He told the royal commission he deserved more.

But because Mr Tucker, who lives with intellectual disability, is working at an Australian disability enterprise (ADE), being paid that little is legal.

Wages as low as $ 2.37 an hour

The disability royal commission has been examining the experiences of people with disability working in ADEs, previously known as sheltered workshops.

An ADE is a type of organization that provides supported employment for people with moderate to severe disability, separate from the mainstream workforce.

There are approximately 20,000 people with disability in Australia working in ADEs, including 16,000 who live with intellectual disability.

About 600 ADEs compete for work in industries such as laundry, packaging and cleaning. Some of them are multi-million-dollar businesses.

The majority of supported employees working in ADEs are employed under the Supported Employment Services Award 2020.

This award, for supported employees, is calculated using a number of wage assessment tools. These tools decide what proportion of wage the employee will be paid.

Under this system, ADE employees can get paid as little as $ 2.37 an hour.

‘No other Australian would accept that’

Mr Tucker told the inquiry his father had pointed out to him that his pay rise still meant his hourly rate was below the minimum wage of roughly $ 20 per hour.

He said he was scared to ask his employer for a pay rise.

Inclusion Australia chief executive Catherine McAlpine, who also gave evidence to the hearing, said the government needed to immediately fix wages for people with disability in ADEs.

Catherine sitting at a computer in an office and smiling.
Catherine McAlpine says “no other Australian” would accept such low payment.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

“The issue is that people with intellectual disability told are told that when they do things, like volunteer or when they go to [an ADE] That’s that that’s work, “she said.

‘But there is no other Australian that would accept that [wage] from an employer. “

Mr Tucker also works one day a week, training to be an advocate for the Victorian Advocacy League for Individuals with Disability (VALID).

He told the royal commission his one day at VALID earnt him about the same as three days’ work at the ADE.

Calls for transition away from ‘modern slavery’

Ms McAlpine said every ADE needed its own five-year “transition plan” to a system that would pay minimum wages to workers.

She said instead of people with intellectual disability being encouraged into “segregated and low-paid employment”, the barriers to moving into “open employment” needed to be removed.

Ms McAlpine said Australians with intellectual disability should be respected in their quest for employment.

“It’s not fair and not reasonable to expect people to work for as low as $ 2.50 an hour,” Ms McAlpine said.

“It’s not OK, and I completely understand why people would refer to that as modern slavery.”

Man once paid 40c an hour

A grainy photo of nine men wearing white overalls and jumpsuits, posing for a photo in front of a van.
Gavin Burner (front, second from left) was paid less than $ 1 an hour in the 1990s.(Supplied)

The royal commission heard from several witnesses about their experiences of low wages in ADEs stretching back decades.

Gavin Burner told the ABC he was once paid 40c an hour to work as a driver for what was then called a sheltered workshop in South Australia in the 1990s.

Gavin wearing a red checkered shirt and smiling at the camera.
Gavin Burner hopes the royal commission can make a difference.(ABC News: Ben Pettitt)

Mr Burner, who lives with intellectual disability, said the system was unfair.

“After six months, I moved to the painting and decorating team. I worked myself up to become a team leader and I was paid $ 1 an hour,” he said.

Mr Burner, now an advocate for people with intellectual disability, said he was not happy that people with disability were still getting paid as little as $ 2.50 an hour.

He believes more people with disability should work in open employment and receive the same wages as other workers.

Gavin and Laynie looking over paperwork at a meeting table.
Gavin Burner and Laynie Dunne-Heynis work together at the South Australian Council on Intellectual Disability.(ABC News: Ben Pettitt)

Working alongside Mr Burner at the South Australian Council on Intellectual Disability (SACID), Laynie Dunne-Heynis said she felt sad and disappointed about her colleague’s experience working at an ADE.

“Gavin was not supported in his hopes and dreams and goals. He was basically put into an ADE to work because there were no other options,” Ms Dunne-Heynis said.

“I challenge employers to hire people with intellectual disability in their workplace and see firsthand the absolutely amazingly positive impact it has.”

Advocates say it’s time for ADEs to ‘evolve’

Ms Dunne-Heynis said while there was a time and a place for ADEs, it was “time for them to evolve into something new”.

Mr Burner, who has worked at SACID for two years, hopes the royal commission can make a difference for employees.

“We hope to see more opportunities for people with intellectual disability to be in open employment and self-employment and have opportunities to progress in their careers,” he said.

“When people with disability are part of the community, barriers to disability will be reduced and they will feel included.”

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