Work provides a sense of identity, independence and social connection. To a very large extent it is through employment that we form and frame our lives; on a daily basis and over time. With good reason a great deal of government policy at all levels is aimed at reducing unemployment, and politicians from all persuasions have often cited their three top priorities as “jobs, jobs and jobs”. Despite this we still see in Australia a high proportion of people with disabilities who are willing and able to work but find themselves repeatedly excluded from the workforce.
The social exclusion that comes from being shut out from this fundamental aspect of our society cuts deep. Aside from the obvious financial aspect of being able to more fully and independently participate in society, the sense of identity, purpose and self-esteem that comes with being gainfully employed helps us to place ourselves within the social fabric of our communities.
Australia was one of the first signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is an important international document, the purpose of which is to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity”.
Article 27 of the Convention states that countries “shall safeguard and promote the realisation of the right to work”. This is a principle which must be a priority if we are to address the disadvantage faced by people with disabilities.
People with disabilities represent a significant proportion of the Australian working age population. However, they are vastly under represented in the workforce. Australia’s rate of workforce participation for people with a disability is lower than most other OECD countries. Thirty-five per cent of Australians with a disability receive their primary income through a wage, compared with 63 per cent of Australians without a disability.
The value of receiving a wage through meaningful employment extends beyond financial security - it is vital for social inclusion, for an individual’s physical and mental wellbeing and for their sense of identity.
Greater employment participation for people with disabilities would also facilitate greater participation by carers; another group of Australians who experience lower employment participation. We must strive for social inclusion, where social, political and economic participation is encouraged and available to all individuals.
The public sector should be leading from the front on this issue. However, the proportion of federal public servants with a disability has been steadily declining in the years before and since the UN Convention was signed: 3.4 per cent in 2007, 3.2 per cent in 2008 and 3 per cent in 2009. That is a trend which is as disappointing as it is clear.
There should be employment targets set for federal, state and local governments as well as non-government organisations contracted by government to provide social services. Recognising this slide, the ACTU has called (PDF 94KB) for mandatory targets to be listed as key performance indicators for all government departments and statutory authorities, and for the achievement of such targets to be linked to departmental secretary bonus payment schemes.
Some European countries have mandatory quotas for employment of people with disabilities in the private sector. A number of these have been shown to be effective, such as the Austrian Employment of People with Disabilities Legislation which requires firms to employ at least one disabled worker for every 25 non-disabled workers. The adoption of mandatory quotas is unlikely to be adopted in Australia and if considered it would have to be looked at very carefully as it could easily feed into the perception that employment of people with disabilities is “charity” rather than a mutually beneficial relationship in a fair and just society.
The barriers to workforce participation that have led other countries to establish quotas are consistent with those existing in the Australian context.
These barriers to employment are numerous and varied and many are external to an individual’s impairment. They can include the financial cost to participate, access issues, inflexible working conditions, and discrimination.
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