Dyson gets gong for work for people with disabilities – but a blogger recalls what happened to sheltered workshop in Hutt

Ruth Suzanne Dyson, a former Labour Cabinet Minister, was among the recipients of Queen’s Birthday honours announced yesterday.  She is to become a Members of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services as a Member of Parliament and to people with disabilities.

But whoa there, says Lindsay Mitchell on her blog – Dyson deserves diddly squat

She recalled Dyson as …

The minister who forced the minimum wage on sheltered workshops in 2005.

She was warned about the effect but bullocked on.

Point of Order suspects Mitchell was referring to the repeal in 2007 of the Disabled Persons Employment Promotion 1960, which had exempted sheltered workshops and similar enterprises from affording their disabled clients minimum employment conditions, particularly the minimum wage.

Under the new legislation, employment opportunities for people with disabilities in segregated settings would continue, but wages would  be paid according to the work people did rather than the place where people worked.

Four years ago a RNZ Spectrum documentary examined the consequences of this repeal. 

The documentary team talked with Tess Casey, Chief Executive of Inclusive NZ, which started life as The Federation of Sheltered Workshops then became Vocational and Support Services, before its current iteration.

Casey says that various enterprises ceased to be employers and became community participation services. It’s impossible to say what happened to all the disabled clients because there’s never been a central tracking census done.

What we do know is that Dyson, as Disabilities Minister, was adamant in March 2007 that disabled workers in sheltered workshops or other alternative employment would benefit from the Repeal of the 1960 legislation

“Disabled workers and their families need to be assured that they will benefit economically from this law change. I wish to correct the inaccurate impression that has been put about by some commentators and by the National Party that the right to being paid the minimum wage will somehow disadvantage workers.

“This is not the case. I have been given the figures from Work and Income and they show that in each scenario, an employee’s total income will increase, not decrease.”

Mitchell referenced a report from her local paper “(when it was still worth reading”).

It said Packworx Limited, a Hutt company that provided paid employment to 23 people with intellectual disabilities, had closed its doors in 2009.

Packworx has been run as a limited liability company since September 2005, and prior to this was part of the Hutt Valley Disabled Resources Trust, which operated as a sheltered workshop for about 20 years.

The split off into commercial and social support entitIes was forced by the then Labour Government’s repeal of the Disabled Persons Employment Promotion Act (1960). It required workshop operations to pay workers the minimum wage and holiday entitlements for reasons of fairness, but also so that they did not undercut other commercial operations pursuing packaging and other small, labour-intensive contracts on price.

Parents and others warned at the time that while the philosophy behind repeal of the Act might be all very fine, the requirement to pay minimum wages to people with intellectual disabilities would place even more of a burden on an operation already on a revenue/cost knife edge.

Packworx board chair Carolyn Crutch said the downturn in the economy, plus “non-realisation of contracts that were anticipated” meant it was no longer financially prudent for the company to continue to trade.

In its 2017 Spectrum documentary, RNZ recalled that Dyson’s bill had courted controversy at the time, with some workshops threatening closure, or extensive layoffs.

In replacing the DPEP Act, Ruth Dyson says she believed she’d reached agreement with a major provider to continue on in the new environment, given that there was still the option to operate with a Minimum Wage Exemption – [MWE].

In the event, that major provider reneged on the agreement and closed many of its day-bases, which caused a large degree of community outrage.

Workers at a garden centre in Marlborough also felt the effects of the legislation.

IHC’s service arm Idea Services had announced in August 2008 it would sell the garden centre as it did not want to be an employer.

Only one of the dozen Selmes Road Garden Centre workers had a job after the centre closed its gates for the last time early in 2009.

“It’s not good. It’s hard on us. We wanted it to keep going,” said Richard Ashton. 50, who has worked at the nursery for 12 years.

IHC director of advocacy Philippa Sellens said in a statement IHC was celebrating the repeal of the act, which had allowed some people to work without annual leave or sick leave or with no right to join a union.

“For 47 years the law allowed people with disabilities to be discriminated against in the workplace,” Ms Sellens said.

However Selmes Road Garden Centre manager Nick Freeth said: “At the end of the day, the majority of the disabled, especially the mentally disabled, have been disadvantaged by the repeal of the disability act.”

The centre had been bought by the IHC in 1988 with wide support from Marlborough businesses and service groups. It had provided an educational work option for people with an intellectual disability.

On the other hand, as the 2017 Spectrum documentary reported, the Avalon Disability Support Trust was one agency that had met the economic and political headwinds head on.  

Chief Executive Tania Wilson and board member Helen Brownlee described the transformation of their service from that of a traditional sheltered workshop to a support agency that tried to meet the aspirations of their disabled clients, including working at jobs of their choice for the same rates of pay as their non-disabled peers, whether that be working in the orchard or community gardens.

It’s was this kind of model that NZ Disability Support Network Chief Executive, Garth Bennie, championed – a sustainable business model that could support job equity for disabled people.

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