Let's not price disabled people out of a job
By David Leyonhjelm, Liberal Democrats senator for NSW
Financial Review, June 4, 2015
Well-intentioned campaigners and courts who want to raise wages for disabled workers are more likely to deprive them of all the benefits and purpose that come with employment.
It is time to stand up in support of business owners who are willing to employ and supervise disabled people in the workplace.
Michael has a moderate intellectual disability and cerebral palsy. A business owner in Coffs Harbour, NSW, offered Michael a job shredding documents, despite the fact that Michael couldn't prepare the equipment, ensure he had the right documents or record the work he had done.
The owner offered Michael $1.85 an hour – which Michael and his guardians accepted. Michael gained the personal pride and social camaraderie that comes with paid employment, while continuing to receive graduated income support from the government. Had he not been given the job, he would have spent his days sitting around in an institution. And no other employer offered Michael a job, at any wage.
Gordon has a mild to moderate intellectual disability and is legally blind. A business owner in Stawell, Victoria, offered Gordon a lawn-mowing job. He would be constantly supervised, because he was unable to carry out necessary safety checks and preparatory steps, and had difficulty correctly interpreting instructions.
The owner offered Gordon $3.82 an hour – an offer Gordon accepted. Again, Gordon had much to gain from paid employment, and no other employer was offering Gordon a better deal at the time.
I have nothing but praise for the business owners who employed Michael and Gordon. After all, I didn't offer Michael or Gordon a better paid job. It would be rank hypocrisy for me to complain that the business owners didn't do enough for Michael and Gordon, when I did nothing.
Nonetheless, some people did complain that the business owners didn't do enough for them. They argued in the courts that Michael and Gordon should have been paid more. The first judge rejected this argument, but in an appeal to a full bench, two of the three judges agreed.
In light of the court's judgment, the Commonwealth government now advises business owners that if they employ disabled people, they need to pay them more.
We will never know how many disabled people now spend their days in an institution rather than a workplace because of this. I am pretty certain the number isn't zero.
It is also unknown how many of the people who campaigned for higher wages for the disabled have put their money where their mouth is by employing more disabled people. I strongly suspect the number is zero.
These campaigners believe that their utopian vision – in this case, a world where vast numbers of disabled people are remunerated generously in jobs tailored to their needs – can be achieved by decree.
But they are oblivious to the real world consequences of their decrees. Their behaviour is akin to banning bread and then responding to hunger by declaring, "Let them eat cake!"
To save the business owners in Coffs Harbour and Stawell from further harm, the Commonwealth government stepped in and paid the court-ordered costs to Michael and Gordon.
And now the government is offering back pay to other intellectually disabled people who were paid under arrangements similar to those of Michael and Gordon. This would save the government and the disabled workers from going to court, where you can never predict whether your judge resides in the real world or in a utopia.
But the utopian campaigners love the drama of a day in court, and are furiously campaigning for the Senate to block legislation that would authorise the government's back‑pay offer.
It is time to stand up in support of business owners who are willing to employ and supervise disabled people in the workplace. And it is time to stand up against holier-than-thou campaigners, for whom ever‑higher minimum wages for the disabled will never be enough.
For work that was done in the past, we should let the government make its offer of back pay. But looking forward, we must let employers offer wages as they see fit. And we must similarly let disabled people and their guardians accept or reject such offers as they see fit, safe in the knowledge that, regardless of their decision, the safety net of the disability support pension and other government services remains.
A famous public figure once confronted a mob of holier-than-thou campaigners who were about to set upon a sinner. He said, "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."
Let's insist that the campaigners provide generous employment to the disabled before we allow them to cast stones at employers who provide more meagre wages. And until such time, let's be grateful for small mercies.
LISA Comment: “Well said, Senator!”