Meet the enterprise fighting e-waste and the disability employment crisis in one
4 December 2019 at 8:54 am
With employment participation rates for people with disability some of the lowest in the country and e-waste one of the fastest-growing types of waste, Enable Australia is finding a way to tackle both problems head-on, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Sitting on the northwest outskirts of Melbourne, the City of Hume is facing an unemployment crisis.
The average rate of unemployment is 60 per cent higher than the rest of Australia, and for people with disability, a group that face some of the biggest barriers to employment in the country, the chances of picking up work in this area are even lower.
Julie McKay, the founder, and CEO of Hume-based Enable Australia saw a way she could help.
While many government-funded community organisations and support services are set up to support people with barriers to employment, McKay could see that with only 53 per cent of people with disability participating in work, there were cracks in the system.
“I’d spent a lot of time working in the Australian Disability Enterprises and social enterprise sectors, and really wanted to find a different model for supportive employment pathways for people with disabilities,” McKay tells Pro Bono News.
Enable Australia operates as a commercial e-waste recycler, taking in electronics that are then resold via the organisation’s eBay store, or if they can’t be restored, are pulled apart, wiped clean of data, and recycled through the correct channels.
The organisation’s social impact lies in its employment programs, which equip disadvantaged participants with technical skills such as computer equipment testing, data destruction, and how to sort and disassemble electronic parts for recycling.
Program participants are also taught the logistics of running a warehouse and how to operate Enable Australia’s online retail store.
McKay explains that while teaching the technical details of the program are important, it’s learning soft skills such as teamwork, communication that are invaluable to the program participants.
“We behave like a commercial business, so you must be on time, and if you haven’t done the right thing, then we have an HR meeting akin to what you would have if you were in any other workplace,” she says.
She says one of the biggest barriers to work for people with disability is the misconception they are unsafe in workplaces. To combat this, a big part of the training programs are focused on occupational health and safety protocols.
“We spend a lot of time training the guys on risks and hazards and how to identify them… they can then take that information to an interview and talk quite fluently about occupational health and safety and dispel those myths,” McKay says.
She says the changes she sees in worker confidence levels from the start to the end of the program are immeasurable.
There is one young person who came through their doors who stands out for McKay.
“This young man was a selective mute and took a real liking to an aspect of the work, and so we created a role where he was required to mentor other participants in the program, and [that meant] articulating himself in the context of that quality control role,” she says.
“Eighteen months down the track you wouldn’t have even known he was the same person… he’s now working with his NDIS provider to get the job of his dreams.”
While the organisation is only able to employ a few full-time staff, increased demand for its services thanks to social procurement opportunities means Enable has been able to bring back students to work on a casual basis, and even take four students on as part-time staff.
“Wherever we can, we make jobs for the guys, and obviously the more we grow, the more of those opportunities we can offer,” McKay explains.
As well as providing work and job opportunities to people that might otherwise never be given a chance to get into the workforce, the enterprise is tackling one of the most pressing environmental challenges we face today; e-waste.
With around 90 per cent of all computer waste going into landfill, McKay says choosing a rapidly growing sector that would be around for a long time was important not only as a business but for the social impact they could have.
“One of the key questions that we had to answer in the very early days was if we were going to be teaching specific, industry-based skills, then we wanted to make sure that the industries that we operate in are actually stable but growing, so there are always employment opportunities for the people who go through our programs,” she says.
As of June, Enable’s recycling programs have successfully diverted 151,662 kg of e-waste away from landfill.
The hard work has paid off too, with the enterprise taking out a top award at the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Sustainability Awards for its leadership in sustainability, and winning the sustainability category at the Hume 2019 Business Awards.
McKay says being publicly recognised has done a lot for the growth of the business as well as present new challenges.
“Winning awards really lends a hand to people wanting to work with you, so we’re now looking at how we increase the size of the business and match the market demands,” she says.
In the five years Enable has been running, it’s now at a point where its commercial operations cover the cost of its employment programs, and no government funding is needed to prop them up.
McKay says this financial stability means they are well equipped to maintain impact with growth.
“Our culture is really important to us…and we recruit people to our teams that are aligned with our values and our mission,” she says.
“Our reason for existing is to meet a need for a group of people that really deserve a bit of a go and I think if we ever moved too far away from that as an organisation, it just wouldn’t be as authentic.”
Now that Enable has established itself as a stable commercial business, McKay says its focus will now be on expanding its online retail store and the number of discounted tech bundles for community groups.
“There is obviously a need for people to access technology, and we’d like to keep it within the local community if we can,” she says.
“We could send it overseas, but we are trying to keep our footprint as small as possible in every aspect of our business.”