"Inclusion isn't inclusion if it doesn't celebrate diversity." (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s time to abolish our last bastion of pay discrimination

The Minimum Wage Exemption scheme, has allowed New Zealand businesses to legally pay workers with a disability as little as 80 cents an hour for years. Amanda Thompson explains why change is well overdue. 

When I was a kid I came to my mum one day with a burning sense of injustice. I had seen someone on the news complaining about ‘Women’s Lib’ (read: feminism) and how ladies (read: all the women I know) don’t need equal pay because they don’t actually want a real career. They just want easy part-time jobs so they have time to think about shopping and what to make for dinner (read: my wife is on two Valium a day now).

My mum was a divorcee who read The Female Eunuch and bought those interesting magazines with the rude bits inside ‘sealed sections’ and raised us with the help of the then-DPB (Domestic Purposes Benefit). I was pretty shocked when she turned around and said: “Well, of course, it’s true. When else do I get to do those things?”

I guess you can’t really blame her – there was even less incentive than there is now for sole parents (‘Abandoned Wives’ as they were so nicely called then) to work fulltime. There were plenty of employers who would have refused to employ mum simply for being a mum. And anyway, there was no real after-school care, weekly cleaners or My Food Bag to help. Ita Buttrose, the editor of those famously salacious magazines my mother bought, recalls in her autobiography coming home from her high-powered media job and sitting down at the kitchen table to sew new curtains.

Having a big career, in ye olden times, didn’t mean you got to stop being the housewife, and at street level, there was just no will for change. The regular everyday people I grew up with knew that working mums having the same rights as working dads was silly – if all the mums were encouraged by equal pay and societal approval to work long hours at the bank/dairy factory/Beehive, who would look after the rest of us? How could the country afford all these jobs?

So were they right? Did my mum and her preference for doing minor jobs while she saved her energy for mowing the lawns and making us eat silverbeet mean that no mum is suitable for a high-level career and equal pay? Is it OK to hold my mum’s lifestyle up as an example to prove that all sole parents should be happy to work part-time and stay on a WINZ benefit for the rest of their lives? Should we pay mums less than minimum wage for their work because working mums, honestly, are just grateful they’re getting out of the house for a change and making friends?

No, no and no (maybe the last one a little bit, if I’m honest.) These examples are patently untrue, outdated, unethical or downright illegal. New Zealand has moved on and the attitudes of the regular everyday people I grew up with have ended up on the wrong side of history. But these are the same kind of arguments I hear still being used by ‘ableist’ or mainstream New Zealanders to say it’s OK to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage for their work.

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Last week, NZME ran an article about a visually impaired woman working for Altus, an Air New Zealand contractor, untangling headphones for $2.30 an hour. The unnamed woman said that she was not on a WINZ benefit – this was her only source of income. There was nothing illegal about her being paid just under $17 a day because Altus had obtained a Minimum Wage Exemption.

The last bastion of pay discrimination, the Minimum Wage Exemption scheme has allowed New Zealand businesses to legally pay workers with a disability as little as 80 cents an hour for years. The exemptions were initially created in the hopes they would encourage businesses to employ people with disabilities who would otherwise be seen as an employment risk and struggle to get into the mainstream workforce. A worthy aim, but even the government admits this was, in hindsight, the wrong way to go about it.

“We know this is a discriminatory act. We’ve been aware of it as a country for quite some time. It’s something I want to do something about,” said minister of social development Carmel Sepuloni in February, when she announced a round of consultation with disability communities into the issue.

The government has already signalled that a new way forward could mean a shift to paying a wage rebate to the employer for employing staff with disabilities or moving those workers on the Exemption Scheme onto a wage supplement rather than a benefit. Either way, everyone will need to be paid at least the minimum wage and this discriminatory law will be no more. Minister Sepuloni has offered an assurance that no employed person with a disability will be worse off, but the families of those affected are not convinced.

Lianne Brown has a brother who also works for Altus for less than $5 an hour. She’s worried he could lose his job and that he won’t find another. “Making businesses pay them minimum wage would just ensure two things – that people with disabilities will be out of jobs, and businesses enterprises that provide work for them will shut.”

Disability advocate Michael Pulman, however, was having none of that. He wrote here on the Spinoff that just as the gender pay gap is unacceptable, so is the way we discriminate against workers who have a disability. 

I’ve met Mike before in a previous job within the disability community. He’s a clever, brave and articulate advocate for himself and others with disabilities who are pushing for respect in the mainstream world. Unlike myself, Mike was probably clever enough not to read the comments that followed his article. I really hope so, because you’d think that readers would treat an article written by someone like Mike on a subject that affects him so personally with a fair bit of respect. But, of course, that’s not how online comments sections work. Take a geez at these, dear reader, and ask yourself if you would agree with these comments if they were about you and your workplace. Because if not, we may have a problem:

‘She probably loves the involvement’

‘They don’t need money. Theyre [sic] probably just glad to be included’

‘If we follow the advice of this author there will be no jobs at all’

‘Have you considered these people don’t need to make a ‘living wage’ as they live on assisted living benefits. The money they ‘earn’ is a token of appreciation. The fact they are involved in society is the real reward.’

One commentator with a disability wrote that they were currently working under the Exemption Scheme being paid 80 cents an hour and I will give him the last word:

‘Choke on your token of appreciation.’

The hardest comments to read were those by close family members of people with disabilities who were being employed under the Exemption Scheme. They were afraid and angry that their loved ones would be dumped from their cherished job with no chance of being employed again. At least two desperately wanted to keep this discrimination enshrined by law.

I get that people are afraid that moving on from whatever complex and hard-fought job-plus-benefit scenario they currently have will mean they end up with nothing. I really hope this doesn’t happen. I really hope this government can be trusted to keep the level of support that workers with disabilities need the same, or better. But we don’t need to discriminate to achieve this. I personally favour the option of a government-funded wages rebate to employers who take on workers with disabilities so that those who chose this option could come off a benefit altogether. The difference between being able to fully support yourself and being on a benefit with pocket money is immeasurable. Having a job means choice and control, self-worth and self-determination. Being on a benefit means being supported (or not) based on how many boxes you can check on a form, being forever at the whims of caseworkers and the current political administration.

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I accept that there will always be people in our society who have disabilities that will prevent them from supporting themselves with paid work and who need a deeper safety net than others. I personally think that it is a measure of the pride we can take in our own society when those people are cared for and live with as much dignity and choice as possible. I do not accept that a person’s societal worth should be determined by how fast they can work and how much profit they can provide to the company that employs them – a common theme among the negative responses to Mike’s article. And the disability community is full of such wide and complex diversity. How disabled is disabled? My husband has some hearing loss in one ear, does that count? Who is too disabled to have minimum rights under employment law? Why discriminate at all when there are other workable options?

Many, many members of the disability community can and do work hard and skilfully in mainstream companies every day. Many can (and would) but don’t because too many mainstream employers think like the comments section: they are not productive, they are a health and safety burden, and they are better off tucked away out of sight and out of mind. The harm in this law is that it basically affirms a false belief that people with disabilities are not good enough to be employed. This law does not expect us to challenge our outdated views that all people with disabilities are content or even well-off on a benefit, in ‘special homes,’ being ‘looked after’, and that everyone is fine with that.

This law assumes that people with disabilities deserve fewer rights than the rest of us, and that’s discrimination.


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