Disability and Work: Fair Pay is a Disability Rights Issue

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 relevant 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?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

8 thoughts on “Disability and Work: Fair Pay is a Disability Rights Issue

  1. If the work could, for example, be automated, but instead is given to disabled workers who cannot do work that qualifies for minimum wage (and I don’t know how governments calculate this) is this ok AS LONG AS the workers in question get their low wages topped up by the government so that they still have enough income? Thinking through it on my own it seems a bit exploitive in that automation of these tasks might be more expensive for the company than hiring people at below minimum wage, however if everything else is equal (decent work hours, the person WANTS to do the work, decent working conditions), it doesn’t seem like it is a particularly bad thing (other than the inherant ableism, uh, bear with me while I think this through).

    I guess what I’m trying to figure out is whether it would be better to have everything that is cheaper to automate than pay someone minimum wage to do automated, and anyone that can’t work a “minimum-wage-worthy” job does not have the option to work (and gets sufficient support from the government to live etc). Would some people rather work for less than minimum wage (assuming a government top-up) than not work at all?

    I don’t agree with people being forced to work for less than minimum wage if they do not get a top-up from the government to a reasonable amount, and I suspect that that is the case being complained about (if I seem obtuse, it’s because I don’t know what my country’s setup is like but I think it is fairly straightforward to get government assistance when one needs it).

  2. I’m about to be in a weird position related to this. I have been offered a job working for a company that, on the whole, I quite like. They run a handful of group homes for teens and adults with intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders–people I like to be around, on the whole. They’re very person-first oriented and stressed repeatedly during the interviews that their clients have every human right anyone else does, even if they need assistance–on the work agreement they included details like clients have the right to their own romantic lives and to marry, have kids, do whatever makes them happiest, because they’re people like anyone else. I really like this attitude and my future coworkers seem to embody it. The adults who wish to take place in a sheltered workshop program that can involve housekeeping, gardening, paperwork, book sales online, or office material assembly, based on their physical limitations mostly (many have additional disabilities like CP). I know they’re paid, but not how much or on what schedule.

    And yet I’ve been offered a job at more than the minimum wage to help them and hang out with them. My work doesn’t yet know about my own ASD. I mostly feel conflicted about it.

  3. Complex and worrying. Thank you for highlighting this.

    On the one hand, Katherine has a point that some people might prefer working below minimum wage to not working at all, and that in some places there might be govt. top-ups to ensure their income is livable. On the other hand, I’m uncomfortable justifying things based on a theoretical best-possible-form of what seems, as she said, an inherently ablist situation. (And so often when you’re disabled, the practice you encounter is not best-possible-practice but the-least-they-can-get-away-with.)

    And again, it still boils down to a situation where one group of people is exempted from a law safeguarding an ordinary right – and whenever societies do that, they sanction the Othering of that group across the board.

  4. Okay, first up, this woman is not likely to be living *just* on the income she gets from her job packing jars. She’s more than likely on a full disability pension, complete with rent assistance, transport and utility concessions and all the other little trimmings which come with a full disability pension in Australia. If her wages are cut, she’s not going to suddenly be out on the streets with no income and nowhere to live. On the contrary, if her wages were increased, the amount of her pension would probably go down, and she’d be subject to ever more stringent “reviews” of her entitlement to the pension.

    Secondly, the national minimum wage, should she earn it, would put her out of the entitlement range for the disability pension – along with the concessions which accompany it. One of the standard concessions for persons on disability pension is the health care card, which entitles the holder to cut price medications (about $5 per prescription, rather than approximately $30), and which will usually result in their general practicioner bulk billing Medicare for any medical treatment they have (rather than them having to pay out of pocket and claim the money back). In addition, holding a health care card is generally taken as a sign of being eligible for just about all of the “low income” concessions available from the various Australian federal, state and local government agencies, not to mention utilities providers, public transport concessions, and various other businesses. Her income would also count against the benefit paid to her carer, and would impact on their income too. So gaining minimum wage might actually result in a net *decrease* in her quality of life.

    Yes, I know this sounds daft. Welcome to the Australian social security regime, mind the first step, it’s a lulu.

    That these disagreeable realities actually result in her being slightly *better* off if she’s not being paid minimum wage (and is instead being paid at well below that income level) is not something I’m overwhelmingly cheerful about. Unfortunately, our government’s social support systems are largely being redesigned these days by politicians who have their eyes on the bottom line and winning votes in the press, as well as by bureaucrats who are much more interested in having nice, clear-cut guidelines about who gets money and who doesn’t than about actually helping people. (Trust me, I’ve worked there; I was actually told by my supervisors that my job wasn’t to help people, it was to administer the social security act. “Helping people” was something which happened purely incidentally).

    All that said, cutting her wages by two-thirds is just plain ridiculous, no matter how little she’s doing compared to the “average” worker. Let’s face it, in Australia as well as everywhere else, the “average” worker is being overloaded and overworked in order to supply the ever-increasing profits required by corporate shareholders or the ever-increasing efficiencies required in order to support the position of their managers. “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” is something which really needs to be re-evaluated at and for all levels of society.

    [Purely on an informational note: News Corporation (which owns and runs news.com.au) is the same corporation which owns and runs such wonderful providers of balanced and factual information as the UK “Sun” newspaper, and the US “Fox” news channel. It’s also the family fiefdom of the Murdoch clan, who started out as newspaper barons in Australia. Their content does tend to skew largely toward the tabloid, the sensational, and the extreme. Take reports with a grain of salt, and note that the current Federal election campaign here in Australia is likely to have had a rather extreme influence on their choice of what is marked as “newsworthy” – particularly since the incumbent federal government is of the ostensibly left-wing Australian Labor Party rather than the right-wing Liberal party. Never underestimate the involvement of the Australian press in the political landscape.]

  5. I’m aware of all these things, Meg, because the same holds true in the United States. My point is that this is not ok and that systems where people lose benefits eligibility for making minimum wage are patently absurd. The solution to such systems is not to grudgingly accept unfair wages for people with disabilities, it is to reform the system so that people with disabilities who want to work will be able to do so, at full wages, without being at risk of losing benefits. Likewise for people with disabilities who want to save (or inherit) money. The solution to inequality is not more inequality.

    Incidentally, your comment vastly exceeded our clearly stated length limit and veered into ‘splain in several places. Please be more respectful of our comments policy in the future.

  6. Thanks Ang, your comment repeating what was probably the main point of the original post “And again, it still boils down to a situation where one group of people is exempted from a law safeguarding an ordinary right – and whenever societies do that, they sanction the Othering of that group across the board.” brought that home to me.

    I think where I got stuck is thinking about people that are ‘unable’ to do work that would be ‘worth’ paying for, but who still wanted to work. This is probably pretty othering of me as I obviously don’t know what every job out there entails, and like Ali said, ou has “been offered a job at more than the minimum wage to help [people with intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders] and hang out with them” simply because ou is perceived as being nondisabled.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to think about this.

  7. I read it and it’s infuriating and grr.

    But this quote won’t leave me alone:

    “We’re actually paying them more than what they’re worth because people like to work and like to be associated with it.”

    More than what they’re worth?! They’re worth more than you, you patronizing jerk!

    I understand our “worth” is tied to work(ing – you can be in school and that’s kinda okay) but he could say, they make more mistakes on average or anything that doesn’t make them sound like they are less than anyone, worth less, if you will.

    They’re “worth” what any worker is “worth.” Some TAB workers are good at the job, some aren’t. The same holds true for his workers.

    Calling someone worthless is a major insult – you can’t do anything, you can’t do anything right, you make me sick, you worthless piece of ****.

    To see it just casually tossed around makes me sick.

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