People with disability working for the Activ Foundation, a Western Australian disability service provider that recently announced closures of its industrial workshops, will have 18 more months to find other employment.
Activ Foundation announced in May that it would be closing the large workshops from July, as the new model of National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) funding did not adequately cover that service.
The workshops employ more than 750 people with disability as “supported employees”, which means they receive NDIS funding for support in the workplace.
In a last-minute decision that aims to provide people with disability working at the sites with more time to transition to new employment or programs, the Federal Government yesterday gave the provider a grant of $7.8 million.
Federal Minister for Social Services, Amanda Rishworth, says it is important to give the employees and their families enough time to move into new employment.
“Many of the supported employees have been with Activ for decades and this announcement came as a significant shock to them,” says Minister Rishworth.
“We need to put these employees first and make sure they receive the support they need to manage this significant transition in their lives.
“This funding will slow the closure of the work sites, from a few weeks to 18 months.
“During this time, all of the 756 employees may continue working with Activ in their roles, if they wish to do so, meaning they have a guarantee of continuing employment in the immediate future.”
The Western Australian (WA) State Government will contribute $4 million over the 18-month transition period to help other Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs) to form “contemporary service models” that suit the NDIS funding model and to provide the opportunity for Activ workers to be employed with other ADEs.
The Federal Government will also create a task force from across the Department of Social Services, the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and the WA Office of Disability to make sure Activ employees find suitable employment before the workshops close.
Minister Rishworth says the task force will identify opportunities for either community-based open employment or other supported employment depending on what the Activ employee wants.
“Our goal is to find all employees new, equally fulfilling opportunities," says Minister Rishworth.
"We want to encourage the fullest participation of all people with disability in society, including employment, giving them a sense of fulfilment through contributing to their local communities and also to the wider Australian economy."
Activ Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Michael Heath, says the organisation has been lobbying the Governments for financial support and welcomes the grant funding.
“I am relieved that, after weeks of negotiation with the new Federal Government, we have achieved a positive outcome for our supported employees and their families, as well as the Activ staff who work alongside them,” says Mr Heath.
“While this additional funding does not fully close the NDIS funding gap, it is a common-sense outcome that will help offset the losses caused by changes to NDIS funding.”
The organisation is establishing a “skills-based academy” as a new form of employment service to help people with disability to work in open employment in the community.
Mr Heath says the Government funding will support Activ to continue to operate the workshops while the academy is established, as well as increasing alternative employment opportunities.
NDIS Minister Bill Shorten told WA radio station 6PR this morning that there are 161 ADEs in Australia and all were continuing to operate apart from Activ, so the issue was more complicated than just a shortfall in NDIS funding.
“I think there’s some pressure from NDIS funding in that these mobs used to be block funded and now people have individual packages and they can choose where they allocate them, so it has been hard for organisations to move from block funding to individual funding but others seem to have done it,” says Minister Shorten.
“We just want to make sure that if Activ doesn’t want to be in the business of employing people with special needs, and that’s fair enough, they can make that call, but that these people aren’t just put on the street overnight.
“So there has to be a transition plan and that’s where both Governments since the Election have shown a lot of prompt attention.”
Advocacy group calls for an end to workshops
Although the Government appears to support ADEs, advocacy group for people with intellectual disability, Inclusion Australia, says these organisations are the equivalent of “sheltered workshops” and that people should be transitioned to open employment.
While the advocacy group accepts the Government funding to help transition Activ employees will provide temporary relief, it says the opportunity to transition employees should be used to get people out of supported employment completely.
An Inclusion Australia spokesperson says, “Although this news will bring short-term relief to some people and families, it does not address the fundamental issue that the ADE system pays workers with disabilities as little as $2.50 per hour.
“This Federal and WA Government funding for Activ is an opportunity. It should be used to support people to work in open employment or self-employment, in jobs where they are paid a real living wage.
“Now is the time for real change, not more of the same discriminatory wages for people with an intellectual disability.”
According to Inclusion Australia’s research review, Wage equity and more choices in employment for people with an intellectual disability, more than 20,000 Australians with disability are employed in ADEs and most have an intellectual disability.
ADEs can legally pay as little as $2.36 an hour under the Supported Wage System and Australia is one of only three countries in the world with this system.
Inclusion Australia works with the Our Voice Committee, which is formed entirely by people with an intellectual disability, and the Committee’s main message is to end ADEs.
“People with disabilities have the right to work in the open market like anyone else and get the training and support they need; this means no more sheltered workshops,” says the Our Voice Committee.