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Tuesday, 22 October 2002
Page: 5603

Senator FORSHAW (3:46 PM) —I move:

That Standard 9: Employment conditions, in item 9 of Schedule 1 of the Disability Services (Disability Employment and Rehabilitation Program) Standards 2002, made under paragraphs 5A (1)(b) and (c) and subsection 5A (2) of the Disability Services Act 1986, be disallowed.

The Labor opposition voted to support the Disability Services Amendment (Improved Quality Assurance) Bill 2002 in the parliament in March because we believe that all Australians, including Australians with a disability, have the right to work and the right to good working conditions and fair wages. In lending support to the improved quality assurance bill, we said that the true test of the government's commitment to improving disability services would lie in how the new quality assurance standards worked on the ground. To put it another way, if the improved quality assurance bill is the body of the car then the standards are the engine that will make the whole thing move forward.

We now have before us in the parliament the first of these standards which will apply to organisations providing jobs—that is, specially supported jobs—and rehabilitation services to people with a disability. What the standards set out to achieve is very good. The standards package incorporates the ideals of workplace transparency, selfdevelopment, skills development, privacy and good service. Labor believes that the standards should set the supported employment sector and its employees on the road to a uniform, high standard of working conditions and productive relations. Of course, whether those standards can be reached with the amount of money that the government is providing for disability employment is another matter. It is not the subject of the debate before us today.

Whilst we agree that the standards are generally very good, there is one exception—that is standard 9, which deals with employment conditions and, specifically, the setting of wage rates. We are moving to disallow standard 9, which in its current form fails to provide certainty and equity in wage determination for people with disabilities employed by special business services. These standards hold a lot of positive potential, but we have to be very careful we are not setting employers up for failure. The information we have received from the disability employment sector is that up to one-quarter of businesses might fail to meet these new quality assurance standards by the deadline of 31 December 2004 and that up to one-third of the 15,000 people employed in the sector could thereby be left without work. Labor wants to bring those numbers down to an absolute minimum—indeed, to zero.

We must remember the history of these organisations. Business services for workers with disabilities are today focused on turning a profit, but they have their origins in humanitarian pursuits, and for very good reasons. Open employment is simply not an option for some people with disabilities. Not only do business services provide employment options, they provide many other benefits besides for individuals, their families and the entire community. Those benefits include social interaction, self-esteem and skills training—advantages in addition to the payment of wages.

The disability employment standards are supposed to be the vanguard of the government's reform drive in the disability services sector. That should be the test upon which we judge those standards. But instead of smoothing the way for reform, standard 9 unfortunately creates confusion on how to determine a fair rate of pay for people with disabilities. In standard 9, the government is telling employers to use either the supported wage system, which was designed for use out on the open employment market, or any other system they can come up with, as long as it complies with criteria in the Guide to good practice wage determination. This guide was produced last year by the consultancy firm Health Outcomes International for the Department of Family and Community Services. I repeat that in standard 9 the government is telling employers that they have a choice: to use either the supported wage system or any other system that the employer can devise, as long as it complies with criteria in the Guide to good practice wage determination.

But the problem is that the good practice guide is of very little help to employers in this regard. It is not a simple checklist describing how to meet the new standards. In fact, the good practice guide itself concludes that no single wage assessment tool currently in use can be described as `best practice'. Furthermore, the good practice guide makes a recommendation that we agree with but which still will not make matters any clearer for employers. The guide says:

Given that all Business Services in Australia are funded under the same system, it seems both logical and appropriate to develop guidelines that promote a nationally consistent wage determination system.

That is from page 2 of the good practice guide. I emphasise those words: `a nationally consistent wage determination system'. But this is where the chaos really sets in. The government is in fact currently finalising just such a national wage assessment tool for people with disabilities. That project is currently underway, but the new tool is missing from these disability employment standards. The new wage assessment tool currently being developed by the government is being kept entirely separate from these standards. Why is that the case? We do not know. We have yet to hear any explanation from the government as to why these two projects are being kept separate.

There is no doubt that these standards set the bar higher for supported disability employment, and that is clearly appropriate. But imposing standard 9 in its current form is the equivalent of asking employers to clear the bar whilst blindfolded. At the moment, we do not know and the sector does not know where the bar is set, because the government is still to determine it. This uncertainty has been made very clear in the latest newsletter put out by Good Samaritan Industries in Western Australia. This is an organisation which excels at running businesses staffed by people with disabilities and at placing people with disabilities in open employment. In fact, two of the companies which employ people with disabilities through Good Samaritan Industries recently won major awards for their outstanding employment programs. In the newsletter for September-October, the Employment Services Manager at Good Samaritan Industries wrote:

There are good reasons for meeting the standards.

But they also wrote:

The impact of meeting the Quality Assurance requirements for the organisation is uncertain.

Good Samaritan Industries go on to say that the introduction of a new wage assessment tool will be a `particular challenge' and notes that the Commonwealth's new tool will only become available for use in January or February 2003. The organisation states that there is no way of accurately predicting the cost impact—that is, of the new standards—until it can introduce specific wage assessment guidelines.

There are some great wage assessment tools out there. We have taken the trouble to get out and see them in operation on the ground. My colleague in the other place Ms Ellis, the member for Canberra and the shadow minister, was very impressed recently by a visit to the Greenacres organisation in the Illawarra region. Organisations like Greenacres already understand the importance of giving people with disabilities a safe, nurturing and rewarding work environment. Greenacres operates very successfully as a manufacturing business, at the same time implementing a state-of-the-art human resources management system for its employees.

But we cannot be satisfied until all employers of people with a disability have a fair, transparent system in place to determine wages. The best way to do that is for the government to draw on the example of places like Greenacres and develop a methodology that all business services nationally can use. The point is that those disability business services which already have quality wage assessment tools should be the benchmark for others. We do not want the leading operators to be penalised or, alternatively, dragged down to some lowest common denominator. A good national wage assessment tool should be flexible enough to apply to all operators in the supported employment sector. It should draw on assessments of the employees' competency and productivity, it should be fair and it should be affordable.

The onus is now on the government to finalise its wage assessment tool and make sure the tool addresses the needs of employers and employees alike. What do we know about the government's plans for its new wage assessment tool? According to information on the web site of the Department of Family and Community Services, the new tool will be based on the existing supported wage system, or SWS, tool used in measuring employees in open employment, but it will be adapted to the supported employment environment. According to the department, the tool will:

· comply with relevant legislation;

· be appropriate for differing types of work and industry types in supported employment settings;

· incorporate computer based applications; and

· be used by assessors trained in the use of the tool.

That sounds like a solution that all employers and employees could live with very happily. We therefore believe that the only sensible outcome is for the government to deliver just such a tool to bring into being what the Department of Family and Community Services has said is their intention. Today we are seeking to disallow standard 9 on employment conditions, and we want the government to come back to the parliament next year with a set of clear guidelines for employers to use in setting fair wages for their employees with disabilities. We want to remove the uncertainty that will arise if standard 9 is implemented, and we want the government to complete its project to develop that new wage assessment tool and then bring that into the parliament. That would be the basis upon which a new standard would be implemented.

We are asking for some commonsense in the future. When we look back over the last six years, we see a very distinct pattern emerging in the Howard government's policies on disability services. Where there should be clarity and support, there is confusion and a continuing retreat by the Commonwealth from its commitments to people with disabilities, their families and their employers. It is time that the Howard government took the advice it has paid those consultants for—that is, to develop a national tool for determining the wages of people with disabilities employed in business services and present it to the parliament for approval. The future of 500 businesses and 15,000 people with disabilities depends on the government getting these disability employment standards right. I ask that the Senate support the motion for the disallowance of standard 9.