‘The Constant Bridesmaid: Will Work Choices and Welfare to Work changes helpto get more women with disabilities into the workforce?’

A Paper presented by Sue Salthouse on behalf of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) to the National Conference on Women and Industrial Relations ‘Our Work…Our Lives’. Queensland Working Women’s Service and Griffith Business School, Griffith University, Brisbane 12-14 July 2006. Copyright WWDA 2006.


First I would like to acknowledge the Yuggura people on whose land we meet today, and to salute their current elders who maintain custodial trust of that land.

Should we be concerned about the intersection of Welfare to Work and Industrial Relations? Yes, I believe we should. What are the implications for women? Today we meet to examine how the Work Choices and the Welfare to Work changes interact, and the affects that they will have on the workforce participation and experiences for women. I would like to concentrate in particular on the affects that these changes may have of women with disabilities.

To start, let us look at their current situation. Women with disabilities have a strong work ethic. However, gender and disability discrimination are barriers to their entry to the workforce and barriers which affect their ability to remain in it.

In the last publicly available major figures i.e. for 2003, the labour force participation rate for women with disabilities was 46.9% [1], compared to 59.3% for men with disabilities. This is a greater than 12 percentage points difference. However, it does mean that at any one time, there were nearly 350,000 of us either in waged positions or actively looking for work. There were approximately 22 thousand on Disability Support Pensions (DSPs) or Newstart Allowance (NSA) [2].

When we look at the nature of our employment we see marked differences. Twenty-one per cent of men with disabilities are in full time employment compared to 9% of women with disabilities. The men are much more likely to be in independent businesses. The situation is reversed when we look at part time employment. Eleven per cent of women with disabilities have part time employment compared to 6% of men with disabilities. In any type of employment women with disabilities are already more likely to be in low paid, part time, short term casual jobs [3].

So do Welfare to Work and Work Choices legislative changes offer opportunity to change this scenario, or will women with disabilities be left constant bridesmaids without jobs once again?

Numerous sources, including Dr Falzon of the St Vincent de Paul Society [4] and Pru Goward [5], Sex Discrimination Commissioner, agree that the combination of Welfare to Work and Work Choices will drive the most vulnerable end of the job market to more and more precarious positions. This is the work space women with disabilities occupy. We are most likely to be affected by the further casualisation of the workforce. Even though the Productivity Commission reports that this process has plateaued at about 20%, after its rapid rise between 1998 and 2001, WWDA believes this situation will deteriorate further in the new workplace environment.

Nor is the overall participation rate for women with disabilities likely to improve under the new conditions. What will change will be the level of the subsistence income support we are required to live on, and unrelenting pressure to meet mutual obligation requirements, and continue to compete for jobs which we will be denied or which we will hold for very short periods of time.

Welfare to Work

The rationale for the introduction of Welfare to Work is to increase workforce participation of four groups in the workforce – people with disabilities, single parents, the aged and long term unemployed; to decrease their dependency on income support and increase their ability to support themselves in retirement. Unfortunately, where the targeted groups are relegated to those short term casual jobs, the stated aims are unlikely to be realised, and it is difficult not to dwell on the figures revealed in questions on notice on 13 June [6] in the House of Representatives where the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations was asked about the net savings to the government of $288.5 million in the initiative for people with disabilities alone.

Let us look more closely at this woman with disabilities arriving at Centrelink’s door after 30 June 2006. She is either a young woman with disabilities aged 21-24, emerging from full time study on Youth Allowance; or an older woman with an acquired disability. Both will apply for the DSP, and will be assessed by a Job Capacity Assessor as to their ability to work for 15+ hours per week. I do not know the estimated numbers of women who may be in the latter category. However, in 2003 there were 138 thousand young women with moderate to mild core activity limitation in Year 12 or equivalent at school (compared to 122 thousand young men). These young women are likely to be 21 years of age at the end of 2006. Some may have undertaken more study and by the end of 2006 will be ready to look for work. If we assume that only 25 % of them wish to enter the workforce rather than do more study, then more than 34 thousand will arrive at Centrelink in late 2006. With this degree of disability most are likely to be assessed as eligible for the NSA rather than the DSP. Once 25% of the boys sign up too there will be an influx of 65 thousand of them looking for work. This is a conservative estimate.

At present there are about 35,000 [7] people with disabilities who are clients of (Disability) Open Employment Services (DOES) each year. The Budget allocation for Welfare to Work carries an extra $554.6 million over four years to assist people with a disability get and keep a job [8], and 101,000 additional [9] places in employment services to assist in the process. However it is likely that this allocation will be fully expended. Funds allocated to recruit and prepare the Job Capacity Assessors are also likely to be stretched. In this scenario it is easy to see how first encounters with Centrelink systems may be frustrating and damaging for a young woman with disabilities. Often she already has a more fragile ego than her peers and has had many setbacks and negative life experiences.

On the NSA, the young single woman with disabilities now has an income of just over $200 per week, with eligibility for a health care card, Pharmaceutical Allowance and perhaps Mobility Allowance.

Even with the most efficient assessment and referral, she is unlikely to get work in the first 6 months on NSA. At this stage Mutual Obligation conditions are introduced. Now, in addition to searching for a job she is required to undertake additional activities of 5+ hours per week in part time casual work, or 12-30 hours per week in a Work for the Dole activity. WWDA contends that locating suitable positions for Mutual Obligation requirements will not be possible for the numbers of people on NSA, and that young people with disabilities and especially young women with disabilities are most likely to be locked into a frustrating exercise where placements are impractical and unsatisfactory. Moreover, in many cases the onus is on the job seeker to locate a position appropriate to fulfilling mutual obligation requirements and the young woman with disabilities may not have the self-confidence or determination to do this. All this will add to the negative perceptions she is already forming.

In fact she faces many barriers to getting employment or meeting the mutual obligation requirements including:

  • inaccessible workplaces – no lifts, no toilet, no access to photocopier
  • high travel costs even if offset with Mobility Allowance
  • participation costs – wheelchair tires, repairs, other equipment/aids
  • energy costs – cannot work and complete essential tasks for daily living
  • time restrictions – work-ready takes 2 hours, travel takes longer
  • dietary requirements – can’t just buy a take-away
  • support worker scheduling and costs
  • lack of intervention where the workplace supports are not available
  • lack of flexible hours for fluctuating wellbeing, for doctors, therapy, specialists
  • discrimination – from potential employer, fellow employees and Welfare to Work personnel
  • workplace/travel harassment
  • inability to use parent support (privacy rules now preclude parents from supporting their adult children with disabilities in any part of the job search process)
  • competition from able-bodied peers and men with disabilities

The likelihood of long term employment is low, and it could be that she will just transition to the ranks of the long term unemployed.

2.1. Job Capacity Assessment

Despite the allocation of about $100 million a year to the Job Capacity Assessment (JCA) [10] process (80% going to established Centrelink, Commonwealth Rehabilitation Services and Health Service Australian services and the rest to private tender) and $25 million a year to follow up training, disability peak bodies are concerned about the ability of these organisations to recruit and train sufficient capacity for the assessment process, and have further concerns about its subjectivity. It is expected that 372,000 people will be assessed during 2006 -2007 from upwards of 1000 locations [11]. This remains a huge caseload per location and the 39 thousand 18 year olds could well be swamped.

2.2. Incentive Schemes

Welfare to Work offers a number of new services which are aimed at increasing the ability for people with disabilities to gain employment at award wages in the open market. There are more places in DOES as well as in Job Network, more allocated to the Workplace Modification Scheme and an employer information website. More money is allocated to the Wage Subsidy Scheme, and the Supported Wage System also allows adjustment of eligibility so that a person with lower productivity can be employed at a pro rata wage.

Unfortunately, two changes are making it more difficult for employers to employ people with disabilities. The first is a change to the way in which people with disabilities are assessed in their capacity to work [12].

Formerly assessed on their ability to perform an entire job compared to an able bodied person, their wage was then adjusted to this level. Now they are assessed against their ability to perform any part of that job, and if they can do one part of the job 100% well, they are assessed at 100% wage level. Secondly, the proliferation of DOES means that an employer, predisposed to employing someone with disabilities, is often unable to find someone suitable. There is an employer plea for a ‘gateway’ service which could coordinate.

Despite these services, under the NSA conditions a competitive scenario is in operation. An employer will make productivity comparisons, estimations about likely downtime for disability related interventions (whether justified or not), comparisons about on-the-job-training and calculation of downtime for workplace modifications. No amount of incentives may overcome these considerations. Negative attitudes remain a barrier.

2.3. Workplace Modification Scheme

Under the Workplace Modification Scheme (WMS) [13] financial assistance is provided to employers for modifications and adjustments that may be needed to a workplace in order to adapt it for someone with disabilities and theoretically improve productivity and tenure for an eligible employee with disabilities. Centrelink published information is very sketchy about the scheme. Even though online information is plentiful, it is spread over several websites not automatically accessed by the job seeker. Presumably applicants – both employer and employee are steered in the right direction by all the job placement and income support staff with whom they come in contact. Without assistance job seekers would not find necessary information [14].

Unfortunately, American studies [15] show that workplace modification is not the factor inhibiting employment of people with disabilities, and that on average little or no modification is needed. The conclusion therefore is that attitude is a greater barrier.

The obscurity of information and complexity of application, even though streamlined for Welfare to Work and with relaxed eligibility criteria, show little heed of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) Interim Report on their 2005 National Inquiry into Employment and Disability [16], where Recommendation No.11 called for simplified application process and promotion of the scheme.

Nevertheless, without this our intrepid job seeker is left with fewer options in finding a workplace.

2.4. Travel costs and obligations

For people with disabilities unable to take transport, Welfare to Work has increased the Mobility Allowance to $50 per week. This amounts to $10 per day for a person working 3 hours per day over a 5-day week to make up their 15 hours minimum of work. Even using 50% State/Territory taxi vouchers, flagfall and kilometre costs mean that the break-even commuting distance to work for people with disabilities is about 4.5 kilometres. After that you are working to pay your taxi fares. The travel distance of 40 km for people with disabilities in rural areas, or travel time of 60 minutes still presents challenges for people with disabilities, and is a restriction on work choices.

2.5. Job Network Incentive payments

Let us momentarily allow our candidate the satisfaction of winning a 15-hour-a-week award wages job on a 13 week trial period. A one-off Employment Entry Payment of $300 is paid to assist her with the costs of establishing herself in that job. Let’s hope it is not a false start. The 2005 National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) study undertaken for the What Women Want Consortium allows calculation that over that 13 week period she earns $1170 (after tax) [17]. This could be further eroded by rent assistance losses and Centrelink debt recoupment. Clearly further concessions are needed. The job seeking obligations of single parents have been adjusted so that a job must now enable them to be at least $25 per week better off [18] ($1300 pa), after the costs of working are met, including child care, travel, increases in public housing rent, income tax liabilities and any drop in income support as a result of earned income. This adjustment needs to be extended to people with disabilities.

The Job Network office which found her placement is paid $1100 (equivalent to the pre-Welfare to Work payment for placement of an able bodied job seeker unemployed for 3+ years) – a mere $70 less. This incentive payment is a tacit acknowledgement of the difficulty of placing people with disabilities in employment. It may be an incentive for personnel to preferentially seek out placements for clients with disabilities but does not encourage them to find long term positions.

What are her chances of keeping this job? The Productivity Commission research report [19] into non full-time work arrangements reports that once a person on disability benefits secures a job they are most likely to need continuing government support to keep it. The report also found that in most cases, a person taking on casual employment had a much better chance of either going on to full-time work or at least finding other casual work than people with disabilities. This group was the worst off from the groups studied, and had a 30 per cent chance of actually leaving the workforce altogether inside a year of getting casual work. So it is that after 13 weeks she is a job seeker again.

2.6. Breaching [20] & Fraud [21]

Now our young woman is a little more nervous about her chances of success. Adding to her trepidation is her knowledge that several peers have been ‘breached’ for non-fulfillment of activity obligations and their income support summarily cut off for 8 weeks. The St Vincent de Paul Society regards as immoral the Welfare to Work breaching regime for people on welfare. Under the scheme, people who are breached but deemed to be extremely vulnerable, will be referred to charitable organisations which will themselves receive one-off payments of up to $650 to manage the breached person’s case. St Vincent de Paul Society has rejected being a party to this on the grounds that it punishes people who are already vulnerable, depriving them of their human rights and of their dignity.

At a government level, punitive also is the money expended on recouping ‘fraudulent’ payments. Each new dollar spent by the Australian Tax Office on tax avoidance will return $7.53 in increased revenue compared to $1.94 return per dollar chasing welfare fraud. The Government will spend a disproportionate $282 million chasing the latter and only $82 million chasing the former, with police involvement in 26,188 welfare cases, compared to only 376 tax fraudsters.

Our second time job seeker also looks at last year’s Year 12 graduates. They are on DSPs and have $46 per week more income than her and differences in their favour will emerge once they earn additional income. But they too are disillusioned about job seeking. Neither party is happy with the two-tiered income support system the government has created.

2.7. Disincentive for Current DSP holders

Even though a record number of people with disabilities were place in jobs in 2004-05, the Welfare to Work changes will act as a disincentive to work for people already on DSP to seek long term work. If they lose their job after 2 years, they will then be assessed under the new conditions. A Canberra Lawyer of long standing with severe cerebral palsy, David Heckendorf clearly stated at the Senate Inquiry [22] last year that from 1 July 2006 he felt more vulnerable about the affects that changes in his work situation may have on a future risk of unemployment. Despite his excellent qualifications and 15 years work experience as a lawyer, he noted that within 3 years of graduation his peers were already earning twice his salary, that his promotion prospects are limited, and job security to a large degree, is dependent on the goodwill and attitude of the people with whom he currently works.

In addition, in a broken budget promise [23], 4000 DOES places for corralled for existing DSP holders, have been rolled over to places for both DSP and NSA job seekers. Even though the pre-1 July number of places will remain, the affect may now be to disadvantage the former group because the payments to DOES providers are greater for placement of those on the NSA.

In this outline of the Welfare to Work , possible negative impacts are many. The current low employment figures high the fact that flexible work-hour positions for workers remain in short supply. Let us imagine a synergy where all the initiatives function in an ideal way, our heroine overcomes all the barriers and gets a job.

3. Work Choices

So far, only the affects of the Welfare to Work conditions have been considered. All job seekers with disabilities must contend with the conditions of Work Choices. These particularly bring in considerations of gender disability. It is little comfort to us that the American ‘Social Watch’ magazine concluded this year that no country in the world treats its women equitably and that they are disadvantaged in both political and economic life [24]. We certainly know that gender is still a huge issue in the workplace in Australia despite 21 years of the Sex Discrimination Act. It is also of little comfort to find that studies in the USA [25] show, that under regimes of similar workplace reform, women with disabilities have the least success accessing the workforce and the most difficulty accessing income support.

3.1. Australian Workplace Agreements

A major impact on women with disabilities will be the need negotiate Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). The government maintains that employers will act responsibly in their use of AWAs. However, there are sufficient examples to give the lie to this picture. The government itself has used some duplicity in its announcements of the benefits of AWAs by using figures which included the large percentage of current AWAs in the mining industry [26] where wages are extremely high. When comparisons are done for employment at the current minimum wage and figures calculated on an hourly, rather than weekly basis, a different assessment emerges. Then it can be seen that, whether in permanent full time, permanent part time or casual employment women with disabilities are better off on Registered Collective Agreements (RCAs) than AWAs [men are also better off except for permanent part time work where the AWA is marginally better]. Similarly, women are getting 70% of male wage on an AWA compared to 80% on an RCA.

The new system will be phased in over the next 3 to 5 years. New laws will apply immediately to this young woman. For others it applies when they change jobs or within the next 5 years when transitional arrangements cease. By then it is estimated that 85% of workers will be covered by the federal laws. In fact the workforce is increasingly forced to AWAs especially where their use is tied to the allocation of Commonwealth/State/Territory funding as in the higher education sector.

An Australian Institute of Family Studies survey of 2405 mothers, found that most women had unrealistic expectations of their earning capacity. More that 70% who nominated a wage they thought was reasonable stipulated a sum below what their skills would probably command in the labour market. Almost one third did not know what a reasonable wage would be for their abilities. This has repercussions for their ability to bargain a reasonable AWA. A young woman with disabilities is not likely to fare better in a bargaining process. Information about bargaining agents, how to contact them and how to interact with them is likely to constitute a barrier rather than a support mechanism.

Figure 1: Comparison of the Average Hourly Earnings of non-managerial employees on Registered Collective Agreements (RCAs) versus Australian workplace Agreements.

Figure 1: Comparison of the Average Hourly Earnings of non-managerial employees on Registered Collective Agreements (RCAs) versus Australian Workplace Agreements.

PFT = Permanent Full Time
PPT = Permanent Part Time
Source: ABS Cat. N. 6306.0

The sting in the tail of AWAs is the removal of the ‘no disadvantage’ clause under Work Choices. This means that there is no guarantee that an employer replacing an RCA with an AWA has to preserve conditions, and may have the long term affect of driving down employment conditions. Those people in casual, short term jobs who recycle frequently through the system are most likely to be affected by this rule.

3.2. Australian Fair Pay Commission & Conditions Standard

The Australian Fair Pay Commission (AFPC) has been established to set and adjust the federal minimum wage to promote the economic prosperity of Australia [27]. It has the responsibility to provide a safety net for low paid workers. Currently it is consulting prior to making its first minimum wage decision. An early admission from Commissioner Ian Harper was that it was possible that adverse economic conditions could drive minimum wages down.

For people with disabilities discrimination is the primary barrier to work. Attitudes are unlikely to be altered through wages policy. In addition, the costs of disability, coupled with costs of participating in the workforce, plus the likelihood of being relegated to low wage jobs, all act as disincentives to work. this means that the level of minimum wage compared to the cost of living is of pivotal importance for people with disabilities.

In the context of minimum wage conditions, both people with disabilities (through disability organisations) and the AFPC need to consider whether the operation of the Supported Wages System should be extended to all Awards, and what affect this would have on concepts of individual employee’s productivity.

3.3. Unfair Dismissal

The removal of the ‘unfair dismissal’ conditions for employers with fewer than 100 employees also disproportionately affects people with disabilities. Naturally dismissal cannot be done in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act. However some people with disabilities argue that this unfair dismissal protection is a further disincentive to their employment.

4. Conclusion

What is achieved through the application of Work Choices and Welfare to Work? It seems that the Social Contract [28] – the very framework of democracy – between Australian citizens and the government is broken. Policies which negatively impact on the most vulnerable in our society show an abdication of the responsibilities of government. When the income support systems no longer adequately support, and less able citizens are forced into poverty traps, it is time to re-examine the mechanisms which have brought about this situation. The social contract has diminished to a Mutual Obligation [29] where the obligation is one-sided and greater inputs by the citizen are set against lesser inputs from the government. One party is obligated to frenetic and futile activity, and in return is ‘rewarded’ with lower income support than others not thus obligated.

Pause for a moment to look at the musings of Christopher Pyne [30] in a smaller ‘l’ liberal statement in 2000 that “Many Australians say today that we need strong leadership. None of us would disagree. But, we need to define what that actually means. We do not need leadership that will make sweeping reforms but ignore its social responsibilities. Instead, we need the kind of leadership that will not limit us but which will encourage us to create the kind of Australia we want.”

WWDA argues that in setting up Work Choices and Welfare to Work in tandem, the government has indeed created a situation that will condemn many already under-privileged individuals to even more difficult and impoverished lives. Unfortunately, women with disabilities may be over-represented amongst those who are most affected. It is impossible to gauge exactly how the two ‘reforms’ will interact in practice. There is an intense need to establish baseline conditions prior to the Welfare to Work commencement. Close monitoring will be needed. This will need to be accompanied by open minded interpretation of results and a willingness to adjust conditions so that the negative outcomes posited here may be reversed.

The best outcome for women with disabilities would be recognition and acceptance of their individual abilities, and increased workforce participation in meaningful, adequately remunerated jobs. Otherwise women with disabilities will be forever on the sidelines, as a constant bridesmaid, marginalised from all full participation in our society.


[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004 Disability, Ageing and Carers: Summary of Findings Australia, Cat. No.: 4430.0 2003

[2] Australian Government Disability Services Census 2002.

[3] WWDA 2004b use of disaggregated data tables from Australian Bureau of Statistics Disability, Ageing and Carers: Summary of Findings Australia, Cat. No.: 4430.0 2003 purchased from ABS.

[4] Falzon, J (2005) St Vincent de Paul Society written presentation to the Senate Inquiry into Welfare to Wrok Legislation, 22 November 2005.

[5] Goward, P (2006) Media Release, Address to UNIFEM on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2006.

[6] Evans, C Hansard, Senate 13 June 2006 Question No. 1418.

[7] Women With Disabilities Australia 2005, Submission to the HREOC National Inquiry into Employment and Disability, WWDA 2005.

[8] Disability Employment Network – substantial and sustained support for employees and job seekers with a disability, The Hon. Dr Sharman Stone, Minister for Workforce Participation, Media Release 25 May 2006.

[9] The Hon Dr Sharman Stone MP, Minister for Workforce Participation, Quicker and easier referral the key for job seekers with disabilities, Media Release 13 April 2006.

[10] Accessed online at: http://www.jca.gov.au/ and http://www.jca.gov.au/resources/fact_sheets/jca_fact_sheet.pdf.

[11] There are [390 Centrelink sites/70 Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service sites/Health Australia] and 490 private tenders’ sites, although not all the former will carry out Job Capacity Assessments.

[12] Hansard House of Representative 29 May 2006.

[13] Department of Employment and Workplace Relations Workplace Modifications Scheme Guideline, March 2006, accessed online at: http:// www.jobable.gov.au/attachments/ WMS_Guidelines_060306.pdf.

[14] Applications forms are available online at: http://www.jobable.gov.au, with further information at: http://www.movingintowork.gov.au.

[15] Komp, C Attitude, Not Cost, Barrier to Disabled Workers new Standard News accessed online at: http://newstandardnews.net/content/index.cfm/items/2909/printmode/true.

[16] Accessed online at: http://hreoc.gov.au/disability_rights/employment_inquiry/interim/execsumm.htm.

[17] Harding, A et al (2005) Distributional Impacts of the Welfare to Work Reforms on People with Disabilities in Australia, NATSEM, University of Canberra 2005.

[18] Andrews, K Hon., MP, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Media Release 133/06, Helping More Parents with School Age Children Move into Work 25 May, 2006.

[19] Disabled ‘need help to keep jobs’ http://www.news.com.au/story/print/0,10119,19250283,00.html, Australian Associated Press, 25 May 2006.

[20] Falzon, J, National Operations Manager, St Vincent de Paul Society on ABC Radio The Religion Report: 5 April 2006 – …Vinnies say “no” to government money.

[21] Budget Papers, 2006/2007.

[22] Commonwealth of Australia Official Hansard, Senate Community Affairs Legislative Committee, Reference: Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) Bill 2005; Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work) Bill 2005, 22 November 2005, Canberra, accessed online at: http://www.aph.gov.au/hansard/senate/commttee/S8937.pdf.

[23] Karvelas, P Disabled jobs promise broken The Australian, 13 April 2006.

[24] Social Watch (2006) No country in the world treats its women as well as its men, 8 March 2006, viewed online at: http://www.socialwatch.org/en/noticias/noticia_117.htm.

[25] Challenges faced by Women with Disabilities under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, Volume: 27 Issue: � ISSN: 1554-477X Pub Date: 1/10/2006 accessed online at: http://www.haworthpress.com/store/Javascript:OpenETextInfoJ501.

[26] Peetz, D The Impact on workers of Australian Workplace Agreements and the abolition of the ‘no disadvantage’ test Department of Industrial Relations, Griffith University 2005, accessed online at: http://www.qieu.asn.au/Paper2-D_1_.Peetz.pdf.

[27] Accessed online at: http://www.fairpay.gov.au/fairpay/

[28] Wikipedia accessed online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_contract.

[29] Accessed online at: http://www.centrelink.gov.au/internet/internet.nsf/payments/newstart_mutual_obligation.htm.

[30] Accessed online at: http://www.pyneonline.com.au/?id=thesocialcontract.