Disabled people and others in marginalized communities have long been exploited for cheap, even free labour. It’s time the discussion of fair pay was had, as is the case elsewhere. 

According to an NZ Herald report yesterday, a woman with a disability is being paid $2.30 per hour by Air New Zealand to untangle earphones, something that is perfectly legal in New Zealand.

It is one of those simple yet divisive issues, how much should a person be paid to work? Throw the disability label into the equation, and you’ve got an even muddier conversation to have.

I want to start this by stating a simple and obvious fact. There is a difference between working and volunteering.

Working in a professional environment deserves fair and equal pay, regardless of if a person is disabled, or a woman. I make that connection because in the past 24 hours I’ve seen and read the justifications of some 900+ disabled people being exempt from the minimum wage being made by the same people that have argued the gender pay gap being discriminatory.

Like that gender pay gap, legal wage exemptions for disabled workers is just as discriminatory, so please, take a look at yourself in the mirror.

The barriers that disabled people face in finding work are well-known, as are the wage exemption issues placed on many of them. It’s something that has been allowed to happen thanks largely in part to the stigma that is still attached, primarily to those with an intellectual disability.

That stigma, as was repeated to me just yesterday, is that those with a disability don’t have the skills to command the minimum wage.

Sure, I am willing to believe that this is the mindset of many a mainstream employer. I am also willing to believe that for a lot of these 900+ disabled people, the pay isn’t the primary motivator for doing tasks such as untangling headphones for an airline company. I would assume that for some it is about giving something back to the community, having a sense of purpose, getting that feeling of achievement, just doing something to stand up and be counted.

My bigger point here is that this is known by employers, by agencies, even by some disability organisations, and it is being exploited.

Combining this pay, in some cases even as little as $1 per hour, with the Work and Income benefit, is another justification some are trying to make. I get your point but you are missing the bigger point.

Such is why this has become such a divisive issue and one that the disability community needs to address. What should come of this is a simple question, that being, is this what we are willing to accept for our people? There is already enough discriminatory practice out there, are we willing to sit back and say this is ok because of reasons X, Y, and Z?

Furthermore, accepting the premise that some may have limited skills, why don’t we also talk about why that may the case, is it a lack of ability or a lack of investment from the very start?

Dress it up and justify it any way you like, but this is an issue that has already been overlooked for far too long. Maybe now we can address this, not only in terms of what is fair and justifiable, but what is an actual job versus tokenistic cheap labour.

That’s something to ponder as this country heads into a budget week where Government is expected to put aside billions in resource for other areas.