TAFE & Adult Provision Hard times for disability workers

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A steady erosion of rights for workers in the disability sector has worrying ramifications for educators and for their clients.

Lorraine Gamble, a passionate and driven disability educator with a wealth of experience, had been working with support provider Knoxbrooke for almost a decade when shock news was delivered in a Zoom meeting. Lorraine and more than 30 of her day-service colleagues were made redundant with only five weeks’ notice.

“It was terrible,” she says. “It just blew us away. One day they were looking for five redundancies and worried they couldn’t afford more than that; now, we’re all gone.”

Even more significantly, she was devastated for the adults with disabilities they work with, who were sent the news via email. “Some of our staff have been here for over 30 years, so we’re a big part of their lives.”

As the AEU rep, she can’t speak highly enough of the support received from the union during this traumatic time. With the AEU’s help, members are now seeking to have a confidentiality agreement lifted so the workers can contact clients – some of whom they have been working with for many years.

When the pandemic arrived in Australia, it exacerbated ongoing problems in a sector beset with job insecurity, suppressed collective bargaining rights and weak conversion clauses.

Inklings of trouble ahead began earlier this year, with shake-ups over staff ratios and a worrying focus on cost over care levels. “It all just went quite pear-shaped just prior to COVID-19,” recalls Lorraine.

When the pandemic arrived in Australia, it exacerbated ongoing problems in a sector beset with job insecurity, suppressed collective bargaining rights and weak conversion clauses.

“They wanted to cut our wages and leave provisions in line with the Social, Community, Home Care and Disability Services Industry Award (SCHAD), and all full-time staff would then be put to part time, so it was a double whammy,” she says. “That was probably the biggest slap in the face for all of us.”

With reduced NDIS funding and the effects of COVID their employers’ justification, Lorraine and her colleagues were already fighting cuts that would have considerably reduced the level of service provided when the shock news dropped of mass job losses. Now she worries that the clients she supported will never get the professional one-on-one care they deserve.

“We choose our friends, but a lot of these adults don’t have that luxury,” she says. “So, the social aspect of group activity is really important. To take that away from them isn’t fair. Not everyone can speak up.”

‘They want to let people in with neither qualifications or experience, to care for somebody with special needs.’

The devastating turn of events at Knoxbrooke is indicative of larger challenges facing the disability sector, with spot-fires breaking out everywhere. Late last year, the Fair Work Commission allowed another provider, Mambourin, to terminate its enterprise agreement and move all staff onto the lesser SCHAD.

As one employee told us, on the condition of anonymity, it’s a kick in the guts for a hard-working team who regularly goes above and beyond, putting in long hours well over the agreement as well as regularly dipping into their own pockets to cover extras for their clients.

“It’s very disappointing – but, to be honest, we’ve always been undervalued,” says the AEU member. “Our CEO said we’re basically just babysitters; that we don’t teach. But that’s rubbish. We teach life skills, how to communicate. I teach literacy and numeracy.”

The way they see it, their clients are part of the family. For this reason, Knoxbrooke staff have shielded them as much as possible from the fraught debate rumbling in the background.

“When we’re with our customers, nothing else matters. Our service to them is upmost. But of course, they can sense when we’re upset. They can feel the vibe.”

Above all, these disability educators are concerned that new staff employed under the SCHAD award do not require training or qualifications.

“I’ve been in the disability industry for 16 years. I have both qualifications and life experience. They want to let people in with neither, to care for somebody with special needs. That’s a real worry for the sector at large,” the AEU member warns.

“All I know is that in the disability sector, we work hard, because we’re passionate about what we do. And we’re good at it. We want recognition for our efforts. We don’t want millions of dollars. We want what’s right, for us and for our clients.”

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