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Equal pay, equal respect: It's time to end discriminatory wages


11 April 2022 at 3:56 pm
Catherine McAlpine
Right now, across Australia over 20,000 people with disability – most with an intellectual disability – are working in jobs for as little as $2.50 per hour. We want that to change, now, writes Catherine McAlpine.


Catherine McAlpine | 11 April 2022 at 3:56 pm


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Equal pay, equal respect: It's time to end discriminatory wages
11 April 2022 at 3:56 pm

Right now, across Australia over 20,000 people with disability – most with an intellectual disability – are working in jobs for as little as $2.50 per hour. We want that to change, now, writes Catherine McAlpine.

This week, the Disability Royal Commission is holding a hearing into Australian disability enterprises (ADEs). You may know them better as sheltered workshops. Many thousands of people with intellectual disability work in ADEs; packing goods you buy at the supermarket, building furniture and doing laundry, just to name a few of the essential jobs they do. It is real work, done in a workplace, across a working day, with workmates. 

Unfortunately, the people with an intellectual disability who do this work are paid as little as $2.50 per hour. Many people have told me that the cost of travelling to and from work is more than they earn.

At Inclusion Australia, the peak national organisation for people with an intellectual disability and their families, we have spent time talking with people about what they want to change about work in an ADE. The first change people want is to fix their wages. These low wages mean that people with an intellectual disability live in poverty, even while working many hours per week. This isn’t fair and means that many people with an intellectual disability can’t go to dinner with a friend, save for a car, or move into their own place.

We want that to change.

We believe that people working in ADEs should be paid at least the minimum wage, and we want the Australian government to take action to fix the wage gap today. For a full-time worker with intellectual disability, the net wage gap is $9,000 per person per year to bring them up to the minimum wage.

There are significant well-being and health outcomes when people no longer live in poverty. We believe the overall economic benefits of lifting wages will be found in health outcomes which aligns with the National Roadmap for Improving the Health of People with Intellectual Disability, as well as supporting the long-term aims and sustainability of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Fixing wages should also mark the first step in a move away from the segregated model that underpins most ADEs. We want all people with an intellectual disability to have options to work in open and self-employment with their disabled and non-disabled peers.

We want to see a five-year transition plan for people with an intellectual disability who work ADEs in Australia to move into open and self-employment. No one currently working at an ADE should lose their jobs during this transition.

This big change – co-designed with people with an intellectual disability and their families – will mean people with an intellectual disability can have more choices, and options about the kinds of work they could do, with the right support.

We think that governments should support this, and contribute money towards making this plan happen.  The existing ADE system contains knowledge and expertise about supporting people with an intellectual disability at work, and it’s important to maintain this knowledge over this transition.

We believe that many ADEs could transition into open employers of people with an intellectual disability. Some may be able to act as a community hub, to support broader inclusive employment across their communities. Families are an important part of this transition plan, and their knowledge and expertise will be vital to making this change.

This transition will take time. We want everyone to be able to ask questions, to talk about the change and to learn together how to do work differently. People’s relationships with their work colleagues, their support staff, their employers, and their families are all important in making work a success.

Each ADE will transition differently, and a tailored transition plan will be needed for each ADE. Financial and business support for ADEs will be part of the transition plan as they move to support open and self-employment. Government procurement and contracts with ADEs will also be part of this transition, to ensure that wage equity is part of ongoing contracts. The transition plan also needs to work with all employers and workplaces to make sure they welcome and can support people with an intellectual disability.

There is work that needs to be done during this transition to make sure there are more jobs in open and self-employment for people with an intellectual disability, as well as the right kinds of support. The National Disability Insurance Scheme and the disability employment services providers all have a role to play in making sure more people with an intellectual disability can work in open and self-employment.

We also have a role as a society in raising expectations about what people with an intellectual disability can do, and contribute in all workplaces. This was a motivation for our successful Everyone Can Work resources, which provide guidance for people, families and employers on supporting people with an intellectual disability into work.  

People with an intellectual disability have said clearly and loudly, that they want better wages and more choices. Now is the time to make that happen.


Catherine McAlpine  |  @ProBonoNews

Catherine McAlpine is the CEO of Inclusion Australia, the peak national organisation of people with intellectual disability and their families.

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