Women In Sheltered Workshops – By Jodie Emerson

From: Women and Disability – An Issue. A Collection of writings by women with disabilities. This booklet was produced by the Melbourne based Women with Disabilities Feminist Collective in the late 1980’s. The exact publishing date is unknown. Copyright.


The issue of sheltered workshops has been a festering sore for many years. It has been regarded by government institutions, such as the Department of Social Security, the Commonwealth Employment Service and big business, as a welfare issue. This however, is clearly a misrepresentation of what is so-called welfare and what are the entitlements of labour.

Workshops throughout Australia are mainly profit making enterprises within which the management controls profit as well as the workers. In 1981 Australian workshops made a total sum of $68 million as the return on sales and goods produced by disabled workers. Management, however, only paid workers the total sum of $6 million. These workshops are clearly enterprises that promote profit at the expense of workers.

Work carried out in these slave labour camps consists of packing, assembling, spray painting, screen printing, engraving, welding, and the list goes on. Workers are often not given the opportunity to learn new skills. Most workers, including women, are considered to be non-able-bodied.

It is clear that management once again controls what is handed to workers in their pay packets. All workers in workshops live on a pension which is less than adequate for living, eating and transport. To add insult to injury, most workers are paid on the basis of ‘favour pay’ from management. This can be as low as $2 a fortnight. Legally every worker is entitled to $60 a fortnight on top of the pension.

The Trade Union Movement, the Department of Social Security and the Labour Government have done nothing to change conditions in sheltered workshops. Why have the workers never been represented to ensure their rights and why has this issue never been taken up by any section of the socialist left as a serious labour issue?

While exploitation of workers is a serious issue, so is the exploitation of women. This exploitation affects workers not only as women but as workers trying to survive – and survival is a key to the interpretation of what is happening in workshops today. Women in workshops are continually subjected to verbal violence by staff. Women in workshops are pressured and forced into taking hygiene lessons, implying that women know nothing about their bodies. Men in workshops are never subjected to, or harassed about hygiene. The oppression that women suffer in workshops has been highlighted over the past few years. Women are now fighting back, women are speaking out!

Experiences of Women in Sheltered Workshops:

In 1982 a women in a sheltered workshop was angered that she had been put off because of body odour. In late 1982 she was reinstated due to a medical certificate stating that it was a physical disability.

In 1982 a woman came to the union stating that she had been raped by a fellow worker. It was dismissed by management, claiming that she was prone to lying. She was forced to take medication and she was later reinstated.

In 1983 a woman was dismissed by management for striking a staff member after constant physical provocation.

In 1983 a woman was sacked after complaining that a male staff member had often fondled her breasts. She was never reinstated and is still unemployed.

In 1984 a woman was sacked after being bashed by two or more staff after work. She was reinstated after 8 months with only one staff member being sacked.

Exploitation is not only sexual but emotional too. Singling you out because you are intellectually or physically disadvantaged is more than just a passing phase in these sweatshops.

And again, why are these slave labour camps ignored? Why does the Australian Labour Party not interject or change the laws regarding sheltered workshops? Is it because multinationals control the flow of money into the revenue!

Many people are attacking the system that keeps people in a circle of poverty, exploitation and denial of rights. We are striving towards a solution that can only benefit workers who are forced to work in these conditions.