Women With Disabilities – Still ‘At A Loss’

Paper written and presented by Sue Salthouse on behalf of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) at the November 2005 ‘What Women Want Workshop’ – A Workshop to Examine the Legislation to Enact the Federal Government’s Proposal for Reform of Industrial Relations and its Welfare-to-Work Strategy. Friday 11 November 2005, Pilgrim House Conference Centre, 69 Northbourne Ave, Canberra. Copyright 2005.

In starting, as a mark of respect, I would like to acknowledge the ancestors of the Ngunawal nation and their descendants on whose land we stand today.

The work of the last couple of months has been rewarding and exhausting, but I (and WWDA) are thrilled to have been part of the women’s consortium. We would like to thank all those who have put in so much time and effort, especially the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) who have extended the greatest generosity in persevering to produce three valuable reports for us.

We now have the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005, before Parliament, and as of Wednesday 9 November, the introduction of the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) Bill 2005 and the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work) Bill 2005 into Parliament.

Although some adjustments have been made to the Welfare to Work proposals, WWDA is ‘at a loss’ to understand why virtually no relaxation of conditions has been extended to people with disabilities. The small concessions nominated on Tuesday for people with disabilities in rural areas will only be of small benefit to a relatively small number. The larger numbers of people with disabilities in urban Australia who are placed on the NSA will face huge barriers in finding work and risk being locked into a jobless poverty trap.


With gender and disability discrimination working in tandem with the Work Choices changes and the Welfare to Work NSA conditions, women with disabilities will be more ‘at a loss’ than any other group.

Philip, Ann and Julia have looked in detail at the impacts which the twin proposals will have on workers, with emphasis on their effect on women. I propose to have a quick look at some of the ‘chatter’ over the wires about both proposals. Analyses of the Work Choices and Welfare to Work proposals have come from all quarters, with ideological and practical objections registered in a sustained fashion.

Although for more than a year we have been talking about the Industrial Relations changes, I will refer to them by their current ironic name of Work Choices.

State Government Reactions

Of course it is not surprising that the Labor Governments in all States and Territories have taken a combative stance on both Welfare to Work and Work Choices. State and Territory Labor leaders condemned John Howard’s long-awaited industrial relations package, saying it promised little, guaranteed nothing and may still be challenged in the High Court, calling it a “piecemeal” package that lacked detail and was devoid of ideas [1].

More pertinent for us was an open letter issued by State and Territory Ministers for Women in which they expressed their concern that the Work Choices changes would significantly disadvantage women workers and their families. They sought assurances that working women will not be worse off under a changed industrial relations system, in particular that women will not be asked to choose between family friendly conditions and pay levels under the proposed changes [2].

The WA Minister for Disabilities [3] wrote directly to WWDA about the concerns of his Department and the WA Government, in particular highlighting concerns about the likely consequences for women with disabilities.

Reactions from Individual Politicians

Concerned and/or negative reactions from individual politicians have not been confined to those of the opposition and cross benches.

Victorian Premier, Mr. Bracks said the “key benchmark” to assess the package would be a legislative guarantee that no worker would be worse off under the changes. “If we don’t see that, well then the PM has failed working families in this country,” he said [4]. There is no such guarantee but Mr. Howard maintains that the Work Choices changes will boost the Australian economy and generate more jobs and higher wages.[5]

On 19 October, Senator Joyce began to voice his concerns, saying that he would not be able to afford to live on the NSA welfare incomes [6]. Coalition backbench politicians have also shown their concern about both proposals, and in particular have coordinated their efforts to be informed by constituents and community groups, and to consider appropriate changes.

In the Federal Government, Senator Penny Wong has been a tireless analyst of the Welfare to work reforms. Her call for a Senate Review, though rejected in early October has now been taken up as a Government initiative in the form of a short time-frame Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry.

Analysis by Disability and Welfare Organisations

The National Welfare Rights Network, Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, Australian Council of Social Services, Disability Participation Alliance and the Women’s Consortium working with NATSEM have been issuing comprehensive analyses of the impacts of the Welfare to Work and Work Choices proposals for many months [7]. The financial disincentives contained in the Welfare to Work package are far worse than those enumerated in the NATSEM tables. As indicated in the NATSEM reports, there is a range of additional penalties which come into effect as earned income increases. When Centrelink recovery of debt (at 27.5 cents in the dollar) is factored in, and most people who are on welfare benefits have these debts, this inflates the Effective Marginal Tax Rate for those on NSA to almost 95% [8].

Comment by Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

Under the Work Choices proposals, Dr Sev Ozdowski, Acting Human Rights Commissioner, has signalled the possibility that the very existence of the Disability Discrimination Act and the Sex Discrimination Act may act as disincentives for the employment of people with disabilities and women, because they provide a possible avenue for contesting a job termination.

Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, says the Government’s workplace reforms package will lead to worse working conditions for women [9]. In a series of forums held around the country, the predominant feedback from women was their apprehension of the impact of the proposed workplace changes. “I think for low income, low skilled people the (Work Choices) flexibilities will lead to more precarious working hours, particularly for women.”

Effects on Family Life

On 7 October, on Lateline (ABC Television) child health researcher, Fiona Stanley and Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward talked about the effect which neglect of some key areas of children’s development may have on the future economic prosperity of the country. Although not specifically aimed at discussion of Welfare to Work and Work Choices, the implications were obvious. Pru Goward talked about the culture of ‘presentism’ where middle management men see themselves on a career track where they work long hours of unpaid overtime and are very conscious of not seeing enough of their children. Parents and employers, as well as unions, all seem to have some concerns about the effect of this on family life. For sole parents on the NSA, children could be at greater risk from poverty and reduced quality time as a family. The long-term consequence may be the cost of managing a larger population of unskilled, disenfranchised young people.

Academic research showed that a single woman on the Parenting Payment Single (PPS) risks being transferred to the NSA if she goes off the pension for any reason and then has to re-apply [10]

The Salvation Army [11] expressed the fear echoed by many other church leaders that the Work Choices changes could lead to the exploitation of the most vulnerable, as people desperate for work would sacrifice anything to get a job. This has the potential to undermine family relationships if people have to work at weekends and on public holidays with no penalty rate incentives.

Comments from Industrial Relations Experts [12] and Media Analysts

Although many business groups think that Work Choices is a positive change many others do not. The union movement and a good number of industrial relations academics see the reform agenda as partisan in favour of employers, undermining people’s rights at work, and promoting the proliferation of low-paid, substandard forms of employment. Under Work Choices unemployed workers will face ‘no choice’ but to accept any job offer regardless of the conditions offered [13].

The penalty for refusal of a ‘job offer’ could mean losing social security benefits for up to eight weeks. Similar erosion of work conditions and potential loss of benefits could occur for sole parents and people with disabilities on NSAs. Other analysts, and the 2004 OECD Employment Outlook report question whether it is valid to assume the outcomes imputed for Work Choices [14].

‘Knock-on’ Effects on Business Services, and Aged and Veterans’ Pensions

It is possible that the Work Choices changes could ‘spill over’ to affect Business Services (formerly Sheltered Workshops) with new commercial types emerging which will offer jobs with minimal benefits to people with disabilities with limited skills.

Age and veterans’ pensions are benchmarked to 25 per cent of male average weekly earnings, or increased by the inflation rate, whichever is the greater. The cumulative effect of a 1 per cent reduction in wages growth will leave single pensioners almost $20 a fortnight worse off, and couples $30 a fortnight worse off within three years [15].

Government Rebuttals

The current media campaign proclaims that Work Choices is about ensuring “fairer” workplaces, in which a raft of rights and conditions – guarantees including annual leave loading, meal breaks, shift penalties, overtime rates and redundancy payments will be protected by law. However, Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews has admitted that the legislation, and the breaching powers of Centrelink will mean that unemployed people can be forced to take jobs without those very conditions. He asserts taking a job with poor conditions will lead to getting one which is an improvement, saying that 4 out of 10 people who have a job move on to a better job within a 12 month period [16]. He does not elaborate on what happens to the other 6.

This long list of interacting factors means that the level of apprehension which WWDA holds for the employment futures of its constituents is high.

Before concluding I would like to comment on a couple of anomalies which haunt me.

Some Anomalies

Job Network Incentives

Under Welfare to Work, Job Network agencies will be paid up to $1100 for placing a person with disabilities in work for 13 (not necessarily continuous) weeks [17]. During these 13 weeks, a person with disabilities beavering away for 15 hours per week at the award wage of $12.54 per hour would take home $1040 (after tax) – a mere $30 more. This calculation does not take into account the disability support losses, rent assistance losses, and Centrelink debt recoupment which would also occur.

Travel Requirements

The Mobility Allowance paid to people with disabilities unable to use public transport has been increased to $50 per week, or $10 per day for a person working a 5-day week. Assuming a flag fall of about $3, and using a 50% State/Territory taxi subsidy scheme voucher, means that the break-even commuting distance to work for a taxi user, is about 4.5 kilometres. Where vouchers allow a 75% subsidy, the commuting distance increases to nearly 7 kilometres. After that you are working to pay your taxi fares.


With the Welfare to Work proposals, WWDA had been hoping that reasonable adjustments would be made to both the level of welfare support, and the conditions attached to it. We know that many of the unskilled and already disadvantaged will never get satisfactory jobs, and in fact may never get jobs at all. Many of its constituents will be trapped in the latter category – with severe detrimental effects on their health and well-being. For the Government the health costs of treating the permanently unemployed may wipe out any gains made in reducing welfare supports and introducing Work Choices.


[1] Australian Newspaper 10 0ct 2005.

[2]Open Letter from State and Territory Ministers for Women, accessed via ACT Minister for Women’s news, October 2005.

[3] Email communication to WWDA, October 2005.

[4] Australian Newspaper 10 0ct 2005.

[5] Sydney Morning Herald, 9 October 2005.

[6] Karvelas, P & Gosch, E Politicians objections (syndicated to) Courier Mail, 19 October 2005.

[7] Relevant papers can be accessed online at the websites of all these organisations, with National Foundation of Australian Women, WomenSpeak, and Security4 Women carrying the information from the women’s consortium.

[8] Raper, M. NWRN New financial disincentives discovered in “welfare to work” package: losses could reach 94.5 cents for every dollar earned, 6 October 2005.

[9] This NRWN paper on the deficiencies in the income support side of the Welfare to work package can be accessed at www.welfarerights.org.au.

[10] ABC Online Women worse off under IR changes: Goward 26 October 2005.

[11] ibid.

[12] Karvelas, P. & Gosch, E, The Courier Mail, 19 October 2005.

[13] Sydney Morning Herald, Industrial Relations Academics: Work changes will do only half the job October 5, 2005.

[14] Matthew, G (2005) Work Choices: Sign Up for Slavery, Green Left Weekly, November 2 Edition 2005.

[15] Gittins, R More slant than substance in jobs reform ideology, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 October 2005.

[16] Adelaide Advertiser/ Sunday Mail, 16 October 2005.

[17] Cook, T. Australian minister admits unemployed will be compelled to accept inferior conditions World Socialist Website, 1 November 2005.

[18] Dutton, P. (Minister for Workforce Participation) More Incentives for Job Network Members to Help Australians into Work Media Release, 28 September 2005.