That old right-wing 'chestnut', getting the disabled to work for less than the UK's minimum wage, surfaced again recently, this time during Rosa Monckton's article for The Spectator, 4th March. Rosa, a business woman, charity campaigner and mother of a Down's child herself, makes an impassioned plea for 'therapeutic exemption' from the minimum wage for disabled workers. An article that was quickly picked up and disseminated right across Britain's mainstream media.
Rosa takes a pragmatic stance on the subject, putting forward the argument that it is the minimum wage that stops people with learning difficulties from gaining employment - by costing employers too much. Her argument falls primarily upon the fact that 1.4 million people in the UK have a learning disability, of which just 6% are in paid work, and unless the law is changed, such people face a life without the 'dignity' of work. A world were people like her daughter face a life of 'watching TV' or 'overeating' as the only alternatives to the boredom of unemployment. A world in which the continual 'ratcheting' up of the minimum wage is the ' most single thing' that makes it most difficult to get people with learning difficulties into work.
It's a viewpoint that is very much in agreement with the lobbying of many 'Conservative' MP's over the years. Essentially, that people with disabilities are generally not as productive as their able-bodied peers and therefore not as attractive to employ. But Rosa goes on to blame the policy makers and equality campaigners for the lack of subsequent employment opportunities for those with learning difficulties, by 'obsessing' too much over 'human rights' issues and for being far more interested in making 'political slogans' than getting disabled people into work. However, while I have sympathy with her heart-felt wish that her daughter should be given genuine employment opportunities, for me, her frustration is simply directed at the wrong people.
Firstly, her argument focuses primarily on the fact that employers are not 'charities' and that it is the social and equality campaigners who misunderstand the fact that businesses are in business to make a profit, not to make a loss by employing somebody less productive. Rosa states th at for people like her daughter 'money isn't the real point' , that people with a learning disability 'may still be living with their parents' and 'often they have no understanding of money' . However, while many people with learning difficulties may indeed live with their parents, those parents are far more likely to be living in poverty than households without a disabled member. Those parents are also living longer and getting older, while still trying to look after their children, who are equally living longer and getting older.
It's an out-of-touch and ill-considered viewpoint in my opinion, despite her experience of having a child with special needs, and a viewpoint that arguably comes from living in a completely different social and financial world than the rest of us. Particularly, when we consider that Rosa herself is the daughter of Viscount Monckton, a hereditary peer and an advisor to the Tory Party. Rosa herself is a former chief executive of a luxury jewellery and silver manufacturers, as well as an (alleged) confidant to the late Princess Diana. So, she is hardly best placed to describe the real world of financial hardship, the lack of employment, education or training opportunities, and the lack of life chances that most of us may not get to experience, abled-bodied or not.
Secondly, an age old problem continues to exist within the business world that employers' will always want far more from their workers, particularly those at the bottom end of the pay scale, than they are always willing to pay for. On a daily basis employers use targets to bludgeon more and more work out of employees, sometimes using unrealistic targets to pressurise staff to do more or simply as an excuse to get employees to work unpaid overtime (something I have experienced myself in the past). Only last year was a leading UK sportswear company criticised by Parliament for employing Victorian-era style working conditions, penalising workers for going to the toilet, stopping to get a drink of water, or for taking time off work when ill. W hile at the same time, paying employees less than the national minimum wage.
Arguably, if employers treated their workforce fairly, paying workers a fair wage for the fair amount of work most undoubtedly do, there would arguably be no need for a 'minimum' wage' in the first place. But in reality many employer's don't and again, only last year was a number of well-known British retailers named, shamed and subsequently fined by the Government's HMRC for not paying their employee's the national minimum wage.
So, in a business world that always seems to want more bang for its buck, even breaking the law to do so, we come up against some very seriously, negative attitudes towards disability. Indeed, from a perceived lack of productivity and the perceived or assumed costs of extra training or supervision for people with learning disables. But that is not all. From my own research over the years, some employers simply perceive people with learning disabilities, such as those with Down's syndrome or Autism, as being far too problematic to employ. Not only demanding in time and effort, but disruptive to operational needs, a Health & Safety liability or simply just too uncomfortable for fellow colleagues to work with - or for customers to face. Additionally, disabled people who are in work complain of the abuse, harassment and violence that they sometimes face daily from colleagues and managers, with people with learning difficulties far more likely to come across such abuses as the norm. This is the world of work that Rosa Monckton is prepared to throw her own daughter into, upon the assumption that work is always a 'therapeutic' activity that provides 'dignity' . A viewpoint that completely ignores the stress and heavy workloads that British employees continually complain about.
But just how much are we prepared to knock off the minimum wage before employing somebody with a learning disability becomes simply too attractive for employers to ignore? The £2 a week that Government welfare reformer Lord Freud, once suggested? Why not go the whole hog and get disabled people to work for free? I'm quite sure employers would not be dragging their heels in order to employ somebody with a learning disability, if free labour was on offer?
While Rosa Monckton criticises people like me for taking issue with the idea of a proposed 'therapeutic exemption' to the minimum wage, she fails to criticise Government who have continually cut funding for social services, such as the community centres that supply a place for disabled people to go, as well as supplying IT training and employability training. A Government that closed down the 'Remploy' factories or reduced their funding, factories that used to employ over 2,800 disabled people to manufacture products such as chairs for schools, tables and car parts. Factories closed under the pretence of not being 'productive' enough, and indeed much to the horror of people with learning difficulties who depended upon such employment to give them something worthwhile to do. So, Rosa proposes a reduction in the minimum wage at a time when it is Government policy that is arguably making life more difficult for people with disabilities, by reducing welfare and social support, by making it more difficult to fight discrimination by the erosion of employment protections, as well reducing other life opportunities. An exemption to the minimum wage that comes at a time when employer attitudes towards disability is arguably at its most negative for many years.
My own research suggests that many British employers simply want to have their cake and eat it. Not only actively discriminating against disabled people of all types, but virtually over everything else that moves. Discriminating over age, over race, over religion and even against mums with young children. So, are we to add exemption clauses to the Minimum Wage Act in order to get more of these social groups into work too? I mean, come on.
Finally, while some people with a learning disability may indeed have no understanding of money or any need for money full-stop, as Rosa goes on to argue, that is not an adequate reason in itself to undermine the whole concept of the national minimum wage by the addition of 'exemption clauses' . If people with Down's syndrome are less productive than other people or take longer to learn, so what. Many are also a delight to be around and arguably an asset to the right business in the appropriate setting, not a hindrance. And in reality, the only way that negative attitudes to disability, particularly towards learning disabilities will ever be eroded, is when employers willingly employ people with disabilities such as Down's syndrome, thereby increasing their visibility within society full-stop. But this has to be done for all the right reasons, not for all the wrong ones. If paying anybody between £4.05 and £7.50 an hour is considered by employers or politicians as being far too much to pay, then these people really need to be reminded that we are now living in the 21 st Century, not still in the Victorian-age.