Archive for August, 2009

A significant case for low paid workers is being heard in the Wellington Employment Court on Thursday.

Earlier this month the Employment Court decided that workers required to support up to five people with intellectual disability overnight in a community group home should be paid at least the statutory minimum wage.

A full bench of Employment Court judges will now turn their mind to whether an employer can comply with the statutory minimum wage if “on average” the employee is paid $12.50 an hour (the employer’s argument) rather than paying a minimum of $12.50 for each hour worked (the union argument).

If you can “average” the minimum wage then it is possible to have a lawful employment agreement that pays some hours at rates as low as $2.00 an hour providing other hours are paid high enough to give the worker an average of $12.50 an hour over a week, month or a season.

Currently most disability support workers are paid an allowance of about $3.40 to $4.20 an hour for remaining on-call on the employer’s premises.

The Employment Court decision on this issue will have a profound effect on the lives of disability support workers.

We await its outcome.


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New Zealanders following the healthcare debate in the United States find it hard to work out what Barack Obama is up to.

When you look at the posters of Obama with the Hitler moustache and the attacks on Democratic legislators at community meetings you would think that he was introducing compulsory euthanasia rather than trying to give a better deal for millions of Americans who don’t have access to healthcare.

It is amazing that in the richest country in the world, that spends double the percentage of GDP on healthcare that is spent in New Zealand, over 50 million people don’t have access.

One of the Obama measures is to introduce long overdue regulations to the private health insurance market so that people can no longer be denied coverage or charged exorbitant premiums because of pre-existing health conditions, health status, gender or age.

Currently in all but five states insurance companies are free to deny coverage for these reasons.

Not only does this show the madness of using the insurance model for healthcare provision but it also shows why the insurance companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in a campaign to keep this model in place.

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Disability Support Debate Continues

The jailing of an intellectually disabled man in Timaru for allegedly assaulting his support worker has caused further debate with complaints now from his family.

Police put him in the cells after an assault complaint from his support worker. They said they took this action because there was nowhere else to place him where they could guarantee he wouldn’t assault someone else.

I don’t think the police cells is the right place to put people with intellectual disabilities but I know that it sometimes takes actions such as this to get the assessment agencies to front up with the funding packages to pay for adequately trained workers to provide the one-on-one support that is necessary.

I have seen people with very aggressive behaviour managed very well with properly trained one-on-one support workers but sending them back to a community group home with one worker supporting five residents is just a recipe for more trouble.

It is good that the issues surrounding support for people with disabilities are being debated publicly but it is also time that the plight of the low-paid often unqualified disability support worker is also considered.

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Friday’s DominionPost reported the comments of District Court Judge Phil Moran about three intellectually disabled men, who had been brought to court by the Police for assaulting workers supporting them.

The judge said it was “very sad and distasteful” that the men, aged between 29 and 50, had been brought to court.

While apparently the assaults committed by these three men were relatively minor it does again bring out the challenges for thousands of workers whose job is to support people with intellectual disabilities to live an ordinary life in the community.

The second largest group of recorded health and safety incidents reported by support workers in the intellectual disability sector is assaults by service users. While some assaults are minor I have witnessed others that have left support workers bloody, beaten and too traumatised to return to their former job.

It is only after assaults like these that service providers are given the funding by the assessment agencies to provide the one-on-one support that is needed.

While bringing three intellectually disabled men before the courts for assault might be seen as “distasteful” the same could be said of the unrecognised low-paid work of the support workers who put up with the assaults.

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Still Here After All These Years

This week the SFWU and the Nurses Organisation hold three regional conferences of Residential Aged Care delegates.

The delegates will be reflecting on how far they have come with their Fair Share for Aged Care campaign and what action to take to improve the working lives of over 25,000 workers in this sector.

The Sunday Star-Times this week carried a feature article on where to find the best paid jobs, and after an analysis of the job listings for TradeMe Jobs January to June 2009 concluded that caregivers were paid at the bottom of the barrel, only slightly ahead of restaurant waiting and kitchen staff.

It shows how lowly our society rates caregivers when they are paid lower than baristas and labourers in the worst paid professions list.

But not all caregivers are poorly paid.

Healthcare Assistants employed by District Health Boards start on $15.83 and hour and can move as high as $19.42/hour, with a rate of nearly $30.00 an hour for weekend work.

A recent report by the Institute of Policy Studies points to the fact that 40% of our population will be over 65 years of age by 2036 and there will be a chronic shortage of caregivers unless we do something about their abysmal wage rates and the lack of a caregiver career and qualification path.

By 2036 I will be in my eighties and will be happy to give up my daily coffee and put off some excavation provided I have the support and care I need to keep on enjoying a happy and contented life.

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Up Where We Belong

Disability Support Awareness Week has given some MPs an opportunity to see first hand the sort of work that disability support workers do every day.

Hutt South Labour MP Trevor Mallard visited SFWU members at the Dawn Trust, which supports people with both intellectual disability and severe physical disability.

He quoted one support worker telling him that “there are not enough workers because they are not paid enough”.

This is the nub of the problem.  While successive governments have made commitments to allow people with disabilities to live ordinary lives the funding has never been enough to embed in the good wage rates, career and qualification pathway necessary to maintain the workforce.

Late last year the Parliamentary Social Services Select Committee released a report on the quality of care and service provision for people with disabilities.

It recommended to the Government “that it establish a strategy for improving training, pay rates and working conditions for the caring and support workforce in the disability sector.”

It said that such a strategy should include “a structured career path, a skills-based pay system, values-based training for all staff and consistent and appropriate conditions of work, including health and safety, safeguards and paid training.”

To carry this out is going to cost money.

The lack of any announcement of funding increases for disability support providers this year and the proposal today to “gut” the Ministry of Health, the main funding agency for the sector, shows that there is very little commitment by this Government to give a better deal for New Zealanders with disabilities and those workers who support them.

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Ngai Tahu Runanga Chair Mark Solomon’s argument in this week’s Sunday Star-Times that the National Government should be considering Iwi for public-private partnerships because they will never leave New Zealand has been undermined by the actions of the Maori-controlled Sealord company.

Sealord has recently bought the Queensland aquaculture business King Reef Group and last week completed the purchase of Argentinian fishing company Yuken for an undisclosed sum.

Chief Executive Graham Stuart said Sealord wanted to continue to grow in Australia and was “open-minded” about further acquisitions.

While it is busy increasing its investments overseas Sealord continues to threaten the over 300 SFWU members employed at its Nelson processing plant to either accept $1.8 million in reductions in their collective employment agreement or to lose their jobs through plant closure.

Sealord, which is half-owned by Maori-controlled Aotearoa Fisheries, has made no secret of the fact that it is a profitable company and that further increases in profit will not be held back by having to focus on protecting or growing more jobs for Maori or other New Zealanders in the fishing industry. 

The Human Rights Commission has slammed Sealord for its demand that the Union agrees to a lower rate of pay for new employees and Te Tai Tonga MP Rahui Katene has said that the Sealord company is “terrorising” workers over their demand for wage cuts.

The Sealord grow-our-profitability-whatever-the-cost attitude undermines the argument of Mark Solomon and shows that Maori organisations can be as bad as pakeha ones unless they adopt values that are more in tune with the people they represent.

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