LAST month’s Fair Work Commission decision on Sunday penalty rates for hospitality and fast food workers created a national debate.
The federal government and employer groups applauded it in the name of workplace flexibility, while unions and the Labor opposition opposed it as an erosion of the basic Australian pay model built up over decades of struggle.
But if we are looking for a real model of wage erosion, I suggest we need go no further than the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which has been operating in Newcastle since 2013, and which is now being rolled out across the nation.
The NDIS is applauded by its supporters as providing choice and flexibility to the people with disability that it was set up to serve. This may well be the case, but flexibility – especially when it comes to employment – is a two-way street. Terms such as “flexibility” and “efficiency” have one meaning for employers, and a very different set of implications for workers, who may have very little in the way of “choice” when it comes to accepting these new “flexible” agreements.
The NDIS is based on state and territory governments giving up any major role in disability services by privatising their agencies, which then rely on client funding through the NDIS to survive.
In protests about the NSW privatisation, the Coalition state government attacked the Public Service Association for supposedly putting the demands of workers ahead of the needs of people with disability. The union argued that the NDIS was ushering in a new era of casualisation in the disability workforce. With the NDIS prepared to pay agencies just $42 an hour for most of their care services, the PSA says the agencies handling the work that was previously done by state government departments will have to cut pay rates to survive.
But at least one private agency, HireUp, says it has found a way to provide disability services for just $35.50 an hour.
HireUp was founded by a brother and sister, Jordan and Laura O’Reilly, whose brother, Shane, died from complications associated with his cerebral palsy, in 2011.
Hireup describes itself as “an online platform revolutionising the way Australians with disability find, hire and manage their own support workers”.
It’s had positive coverage in the national media, and like Uber and any number of other sector “disrupters”, its basic business model involves putting people with disability together with carers, and taking a cut from the service provided. HireUp says it offers everything from “help around the house” to “high needs specialist support”. Its standard rate for support work is $35.50 an hour, with $29.20 (including superannuation) going to the worker. Information on its website says this is above the relevant award, and in conversation with the Newcastle Herald, the company said it was able to pay for the various insurances and other costs, plus run its office and make a profit, out of the $6.30 an hour it would take from the cake.
While such an arrangement may well be advantageous for the person seeking disability services – and I do not doubt that HireUp was started with the best of intentions - it puts a lot of pressure back on the worker. From my permanently employed position, it strikes me as a digital version of the old waterfront “bull ring”, where wharfies would vie against each other for a day’s labour.
And if takes off in the disability sector, how long will it be before other industries looking to cut costs start looking at similar models? In the name of flexibility, of course.