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Business Services Wages Assessment Tool Payment Scheme

 

I am proud to speak in favour of this Bill. It is a Bill worthy of support because the Payment Scheme it brings into effect will provide remuneration and certainty for thousands of intellectually disabled Australians while the Government seeks to reform wage assessment in this vital area of supported employment.

 

Ensuring the viability of supported employment is absolutely paramount to this Government’s approach to disability. The Government is serious about its commitment to the lives of intellectually disabled Australians, to their ability to make a genuine contribution to society through programs provided by Australian Disability Enterprises.

 

A Payment Scheme grows out of this serious commitment. The Coalition is the champion both of the fair go, and of having a go. Those values are central to the philosophy of this Bill and all related measures.

 

The Background of the Scheme relates to a Federal Court decision of 2012 which found that two employees had been indirectly discriminated against because of the nature of the Business Services Wages Assessment Tool, under which most intellectually disabled employees of Australian Disability Enterprises had their wages determined.

 

This finding of indirect discrimination resulted from a comparison of two workers of equal productivity with different kinds of disabilities. It was found that workers with an intellectual disability were significantly disadvantaged when compared to their physically disabled counterparts in demonstrating their skill and productivity using the questions asked by the BSWAT.

 

These questions were often of an abstract or metacognitive nature, such as “How do you help out in the workplace?”, meaning that employees with intellectual impairment were disadvantaged by this means of determining workplace competency.

 

Because of the intellectual rather than physical nature of their disability, intellectually disabled Australians were less able to demonstrate their value through the ‘competency’ measures in the BSWAT.

 

What is of concern, both to the Federal Court and to the Commonwealth Government, is the finding that indirect discrimination was occurring through the use of a Wage Assessment tool which was not suited to the needs or abilities of people with an intellectual disability.

 

The central purpose of the scheme is to respond to findings of indirect discrimination for the sake of ADE employees while a longer term measure is devised.

 

This was due to their decreased ability to respond to abstract questions in the way that would be deemed appropriate by those administrating BSWAT, even though these answers and their ostensible implications were not reflective of the way employees were really completing their work or interacting with co-workers.

 

Furthermore, the threshold for the ‘not yet competent’ label to be applied to a category of competency was extremely low; if employees were deemed not yet competent for just one of the several parameters of competency, he or she would be deemed “Not Yet Competent” for the entire category.

 

By shifting the focus from the often hazy notion of “competency” to the more concrete and relevant measure of “productivity”, the Government is taking this court decision into account and setting a new agenda for the new payment tool that will be developed. This is a Government that recognises that productivity is the key feature to consider when determining the value of work, especially when less concrete features are difficult to adjudicate in the case of vulnerable individuals with an intellectual impairment.

 

While the Government addresses this issue, a payment scheme fulfils the ongoing needs of intellectually disabled employees to receive certainty about their employment and remunerate them for work provided while the BSWAT was being used.

 

It is important to note that, rather than making a judgement about the level or nature of the pro rata wage in question, the Federal Court decision found that the tool used to assess wages had shortcomings that amounted to indirect discrimination. The fairness and relevancy of the wage assessment tool will be the focus of the government’s future legislation in this area, rather than a focus on levels of wages in abstract terms.

 

This scheme, and the initiative to which it is related, holds a particular significance to my electorate of Barton. A couple of months back, I visited the Intellectual Disability Foundation of St George, one such Australian Disability Enterprise within my electorate of Barton. Through charitable donations, the funding it receives through the Commonwealth Government, and its own revenue, IDF’s operation Ascalon Enterprises provides businesses with reliable packaging and capping services and disabled Barton residents the opportunity to work.

 

Predominately the enterprise requires workers to engage in simple physical tasks such as packing, capping and sealing, working to a retail standard with a focus on quality and safety.

 

By speaking with the employees at Ascalon Enterprises, I saw that for those involved, the opportunity to work meant the opportunity to make a contribution to society – to feel valued, useful, and needed.

 

For those at Ascalon, the work provides a feeling and a quality of life which cannot be achieved by anything other than employment. The work that the Intellectual Disability Foundation of St George provides is so fulfilling and such a positive force for those that work there that there is a high demand to be employed there, with a long waiting list to come on board.

 

That is why Australian Disability Enterprises are such an important social investment by the government – one that must remain sustainable and grow into the future. It is impossible to emphasise the value of such schemes enough.

 

This is the sort of quality of life we should be seeking to provide all intellectually disabled Australians who have the ability to undertake this sort of work.  The majority of this work is undertaken by Barton residents with an intellectual disability, many of whom would have their wages assessed under the BSWAT.

 

Certainly, it is important that these employees know that they are really working for a wage; they have a right to be supplied with reasonable and achievable productivity goals and receive a wage for achieving them, in addition to their Disability Support Pension.

 

However, what is even more important than referring to an hourly wage out of context, is to consider the package of support that employees receive through their involvement with Australian Disability Enterprises and the government more generally. Support packages like the Disability Support Pension, disability counselling and on-site care mean that to look at the reward employees receive merely by isolating the wage of an employee to an hourly wage is beside the point.

 

To drastically increase the wage paid to these employees by ADE without doing so according to a reasoned scheme would seriously threaten the viability of operating supported employment at all. As a Government, our priority is undoubtedly the continuation of a scheme that is adding so much value to the lives of 20,000 Australians.

 

It is very important to remember that a large number of employees with an intellectual or physical impairment who work with ADE would not otherwise have found employment in the open labour market. Therefore, the pro rata wage employees receive should be considered in the context that many of these programs run at a loss and operate for the good of their employees.

 

Our Payment Scheme and our intention to legislate for a new wage assessment scheme will provide certainty for intellectually disabled Australians who may be unsure about the way in which their wages are determined.

It does due diligence by taking the Federal Court decision into account, respecting its finding of indirect discrimination and resolving to attend to issues of discrimination as soon as we become aware of them, out of respect for the valued employees of Australian Disability Enterprises.

 

This was an area in which the previous Labor government did not legislate, meaning that the BSWAT had been deemed discriminatory in 2012 but Labor left government in late 2013 without responding to the issue. It has taken a Coalition government to respond to the Federal Court decision and reconsider the issue of wage assessment.

 

The Payment provides the provisional certainty that the sector needs while we will address the shortcomings of the BSWAT and devise a new scheme for assessing pro-rata wages.

 

In alliance with the NDIS, schemes such as these show that the Government is serious about providing Australians with a disability with the support, reward and opportunity they need to thrive as full members of our great Australian community.

 

I commend the Government on taking the steps not only to devise a new Assessment Tool for the wages of disabled employees but to provide a payment in the meantime which gives assurance and certainty to those affected regarding their employment, until a new scheme is devised.

 

So what makes this Scheme commendable and what makes this Bill worthy of my colleagues’ support?

This Bill provides certainty to working Australians with an intellectual disability.

 

It provides economic sustainability, as employers cannot afford to provide the kind of one off payment to a large number of employees that the Government is able to provide as a result of this payment scheme.

 

It reassures employees that the Government wants to ensure that they are paid appropriately according to a fair scheme, and pay them for past work that may have occurred under an unfair scheme.

 

It responds appropriately to Court decisions and respects the mandate that the findings necessitate change for the sake of the employees.

 

It pays valued employees appropriately for genuine services rendered while seeking to maintain the viability of the scheme by taking the pressure off individual employers. Thus, it secures the valuable work of Australian Disability Enterprises, ultimately for the sake of the twenty thousand Australians that ADE employs.

 

It has extremely reasonable, but non-negotiable, deadlines to apply, it has both external and internal review processes, and the terms of the scheme are well expressed to the relevant parties in ways that make sense to them. One of the best facilities of the scheme is its provision of legal and financial advice free of charge to potential recipients as they consider their options.

 

This is one way the specifications of this Bill work to provide choice and control for applicants with a disability. This is a voluntary payment which employees have the right to consider as an individual and with the help of nominees and advisors. They also have the ability to seek review of any decisions made in relation to eligibility.

 

This is a fair scheme, offered in good faith to those employees of Australian Disability Enterprises with an intellectual disability who have had their wages assessed under the BSWAT, in order to provide them with certainty and remuneration.

 

By shouldering the cost of a payment scheme, the Government is safeguarding the viability of Australian Disability Enterprises for the sake of intellectually disabled Australians.

 

It is a Bill most worthy of your support.

 

I commend the Bill to the House.

 

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