Why should disabled people work for peanuts?

A bowl of monkey nuts, i.e. peanuts in their shells.Last week Rosa Monckton, wife of Dominic Lawson (son of Nigel and former editor of the Sunday Telegraph when it emitted four of Will Cummins’s Islamophobic rants in as many editions — and before anyone accuses me of an ad hominem, the BBC mentions her connections to Princess Diana and she mentions Lord Freud’s descent from the great Sigmund, so …) and former chief executive of Asprey & Garrard, jewellers to the Crown and various sporting institutions, wrote an article in the Spectator calling for disabled people to be ‘allowed’ to work for less than the minimum wage as this would allow them the ‘dignity’ of a paid job, and that the minimum wage makes it difficult for employers to hire them. She claims that work is essential for fostering a sense of human dignity, quoting Freud as saying “love and work, work and love, that’s all there is” and a DWP green paper as saying that the “evidence is clear that work and health are linked”, but that employers are not charities and cannot be expected to pay minimum wage if the employee’s net activity amounts to a loss. Her comments have provoked outrage in the disability community, and rightly so. (More: Jonathan Hume, Neil Crowther, Rob Greig.)

Monckton has a daughter, Domenica, who has Down’s syndrome, and runs a charity in Sussex called “Domenica’s Team”, which trains people with learning disabilities in “supported employment” in partnership with Brighton City College. It has a “training café”, which is open to the public, and a business where their trainees “weigh and package spices, stick on labels and parcel up the goods” and a kitchen which “is also a mini-business: they select items they would like to see sold in the café, make the shopping list, do the shopping, cook, price up and deliver to the café”. All of this is work, and sounds similar enough to work that non-disabled people do in cafés and food businesses up and down the country. None of those businesses is exempt from the minimum wage. This appears to be an educational environment, but when ordinary employees are in training, they may be paid less than a trained member of staff (especially if they are doing a job with the trainer that they would normally do alone), but never less than the minimum wage. Why should a disabled worker be treated any differently?

What anyone who has researched sheltered employment for disabled people knows is that it can be, and often is, exploitative. On the pretext of providing disabled people who would otherwise “sit and do nothing” with something to do and a bit of pocket money, it has them doing repetitive tasks for hours and earning a pittance. A few years ago I followed the case of Jenny Hatch, a Virginia woman with Down’s syndrome who challenged a guardianship placed on her parents, which left her with no rights, and won in August 2013. While under guardianship, she was forced to live in a group home, was prohibited from seeing her friends or using her mobile phone or the Internet to communicate with them, and was expected to work in a ‘sheltered’ workshop where she “put labels on boxes and snapped plastic things together all day”, as her friends told me, which she found boring. They also told me that the organisation that ran the workshop got between $67 and $89 for every hour she was there, but she had no idea how much she was getting paid and had never received a pay slip.

Mrs Lawson pleads that “money isn’t the real point”, that many people with learning disabilities live with their parents, and that they often have no understanding of money; her daughter once received a £5 tip and asked if she could go to New York, for example. However, underpaying someone because they do not know the difference between £5 and £500 is deception. There are a number of conditions which result in someone’s ability to perform mathematical tasks being impaired; we would not think it acceptable that a stroke survivor be paid a trivial sum, or less than anyone else, for doing work that is of value because they would not know they were being underpaid. A deputy would be appointed to manage the financial affairs of someone in this situation, particularly if they did not appreciate that they had the impairment.

Monckton spends much of her article stressing the importance of work, quoting a statistic that 1.3 million of the 1.4 million people with learning disabilities in the UK are out of work and saying:

When I am in our training centre, speaking to our students when they return from a work placement, I can see how changed they are. When they say ‘I’ve been to work today’, they look confident and happy.

Yet these people are on a training placement, which one presumes is fairly short. If the job these people are doing is enjoyable in itself and varied, not repetitive, they might enjoy it for its own sake, regardless of money, but the same is true of jobs done by non-disabled people and this does not justify paying them less than minimum wage. As anyone who has done tedious and repetitive work could tell the woman who ran the poshest jewellery business in the land, the novelty of such work wears off after a while; people do not do it for ‘dignity’ but to pay the bills. When people have a choice, they would not choose work that was boring and repetitive if the pay was equal (and sometimes even if it was not), and they appreciate the time they spend doing other things (workers actually had to fight to get weekends and public holidays off). And some disabled people would not rather work for the illusion of independence; this morning I read a blog article by a visually impaired woman who had just secured a job as a vacation planner on a Florida theme park, and had ended a long term relationship with a boyfriend with cerebral palsy who wanted her to move into supported accommodation with him:

His idea of a perfect life involved having me and him move in together, live off the system and food stamps, and essentially have no control over my money while his staff take care of our bills, our meals, everything.

As cushy as that sounds, I didn’t buy into it.

Now I’m not trashing that lifestyle by any means, but what he was used to given his disability and what I was used to as a person who got denied for most government benefits just never added up to me. Where would I have fit in in all of this? What purpose would I have aside from being a live-in girlfriend? So many questions, not enough answers.

Monckton fears that without low-wage supported employment, those with learning disabilities “can expect a life spent in the shadows, slumped on a sofa, eating the wrong sort of food, watching daytime television” and also mentions the closure of services and day centres. She clearly has a very low expectation not only of learning disabled people themselves but also of their families (anyone who doesn’t have Nigella Lawson for an aunt, perhaps?) if she believes they will all end up in that situation, and very much of the decline of services has happened since the last two governments cut off funding to local councils, forcing them to sell off buildings, particularly in areas with high land prices, like London. I did not hear her protest against any of this.

Monckton’s arguments against minimum wage for disabled people are standard Tory arguments against minimum wages for everyone: that they make it more difficult to create jobs and thus hurt the people they are meant to help. While this can be true if they are set too high, no minimum wage means that bosses can pay a pittance to workers while pocketing the difference. No organisation should be allowed to employ disabled people at below the minimum wage on a permanent basis; it is a door to exploitation, and if money is being used to subsidise sheltered menial work, it should be used to fund worthwhile activities.

Image source: Ark Wildlife.

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