ABC story on payment scheme
ELIZABETH JACKSON: A prominent law firm has slammed the Federal Government's moves to legislate a new wages payment scheme for intellectually disabled workers.
The peak body representing the disability enterprises, formerly known as sheltered workshops, says the Government's bill will help secure ongoing employment for thousands of severely disabled workers who would otherwise be out of a job.
But lawyers representing up to 10,000 disabled workers claim that the Government is trying to frustrate efforts to recover years of underpaid wages through the courts.
Emily Bourke reports.
EMILY BOURKE: At the end of 2012, the full Federal Court ruled that some intellectually disabled workers had been short-changed in wages, in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act, and a year later, the law firm Maurice Blackburn launched a class action to recover the unpaid wages of thousands of other wages.
But the Government says it's concerned about how long that court case might take to resolve, and so it's introduced a bill to set up a new payment scheme aimed at reassuring workers, their families, and carers, and removing perceived liability that could affect the ability of Australian Disability Enterprises to deliver ongoing employment.
Josh Bornstein is a partner with the law firm Maurice Blackburn
JOSH BORNSTEIN: What we're going to be faced with is an attempt by the Government with this bill to try and dangle a carrot at intellectually disabled people on poverty wages, and say to those people: 'you can either get half your back pay now and if you do that you can't be part of the court process, or else we're going to fight, delay, and kick and resist a Federal Court judgment which gives you everything that you should be paid.'
EMILY BOURKE: What's the quantum of the underpayment, or that back pay?
JOSH BORNSTEIN: On figure that has been bandied about is something in the vicinity of $20 million.
EMILY BOURKE: Dr Ken Baker is from National Disability Services, which represents around 600 disability enterprises.
KEN BAKER: This court case in particular will be long, it will be resource-intensive, it will be complex - it's dealing with complex issues - and I think the result is uncertain. I understand why Maurice Blackburn, you know they're absolutely entitled to run this case and to pitch for business, but I'd rather see the resources pumped into this case were being directed towards supporting disability enterprises and the wages of their employees.
EMILY BOURKE: What kind of threat might it represent to the viability of enterprises?
KEN BAKER: If it were successful in all its claims, it would impose a huge increase in the wages bill on disability enterprises, certainly above 50 per cent. Now these are organisations, they're not-for-profit organisations, most of them struggle to break even. The real risk in all this, the real risk, is that we could have thousands of individuals with severe disability who are unemployed.
EMILY BOURKE: Mr Bornstein denies it's a lawyers' picnic.
JOSH BORNSTEIN: There have been numerous lawyers working on this case over the years pro bono, and we will not be charging our clients a thing for any legal work we do.
EMILY BOURKE: The class action is due to return to the Federal Court next month.
ELIZABETH JACKSON: Emily Bourke.