Govt moves to aggressively short-change disabled workers

30th Jul 2014

More than 10,000 intellectually-disabled Australian workers risk being collectively short-changed millions of dollars in back pay by contentious new federal legislation, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

Two years ago, the Federal Court held that the Business Services Wage Assessment Tool used to assess the wages of intellectually disabled workers was discriminatory. In December 2013, a class action was lodged for back pay for thousands of workers.

In response, the Commonwealth introduced legislation in June to establish the Business Services Wage Assessment Tool (BSWAT) Payment Scheme.

Instead of paying the back pay sought, the Federal Government’s new legislation is an aggressive step seeking to short-circuit the lawsuit. Signing up to the payment scheme will automatically remove people from the class action and also provide only half of what people could be entitled to.

ALA National President Andrew Stone said the Government’s actions were unprecedented, essentially amounting to buying out the rights of intellectually disabled workers for 50 cents in the dollar when it should be paying them the full amount.

“The courts found that the Federal Government was underpaying intellectually-disabled Australian workers two years ago,” Mr Stone said.

“These are Australia’s lowest-paid and most disadvantaged workers. The court has found they were underpaid. Why hasn’t the government already calculated what they are owed as back pay and sent them a cheque?”

“We are talking about people who are being paid little more than a dollar an hour. They are already paid at a significant discount to real wages as encouragement to keep them in employment.  They aren’t asking for $15 an hour; we’re talking about making up approximately $2 an hour in back pay,” Mr Stone said.

Mr Stone said that introducing new legislation was unnecessary as the government’s responsibility in this matter was clear.

“This bid to buy off intellectually disabled workers for 50% of their legal rights, is being passed off as some sort of “certainty” principle that Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews hasn’t yet explained,” Mr Stone said.

“No legislation is needed for certainty. The Government owes workers back pay, and if the government short-changed the intellectually-disabled on their wages, then capacity must be found in the budget to make good the damage.”

“The true winners from this payment scheme will be the Government, who will end up paying less to remedy the many hours of underpayment that workers have suffered.

“No Australian living without disability would be treated in such a manner,” Mr Stone said.

ALA’s BSWAT submission to the Senate Community Affairs Inquiry can be accessed here.

The Inquiry website, including links to the Bills, is accessible here.

The legislation proposing the establishment of the payment scheme is the Business Services Wage Assessment Tool Payment Scheme Bill 2014 (BSWAT), and the Business Services Wage Assessment Tool Payment Scheme Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014.