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Improving employment outcomes

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Are workers with disability part of Australia's employment success story?

Australia’s unemployment rate sits at four per cent, the equal lowest since 1974. It is a welcome overall result for the nation, but one that hides a very different story for people living with disability who still experience significantly higher rates of unemployment and underemployment, as well as unacceptable barriers and discrimination in the labour market.

Disability is not considered within the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) monthly Labour Force Survey that underpins the official unemployment rate. Instead, we must rely on data from the Survey of Disability, Ageing, and Carers (SDAC) conducted every few years. The most recent data is from 2018 and indicates that 47.8 per cent of people living with disability of working age living in households (not closed systems etc) were employed compared to 80.3 per cent of non-disabled people.

The unemployment rate among people living with disability who were regarded as part of the labour force (either employed or available to work) was 10.3 per cent in 2018 compared to 4.6 per cent for non-disabled people at that time. However, it is likely that the size of the labour force continues to be understated given the enduring tendency to assign deficits and low expectations to people living with disability rather than focusing on their skills, strengths, and capacity.

For those who were employed, the 2018 data also shows that people living with disability experience high levels of unfair treatment and discrimination at work, with 45.2 per cent reporting being targeted by an employer and 42 per cent by their work colleagues. The median gross personal income of a person living with disability was $505 per week in 2018, less than half that of a non-disabled person at $1016 per week at that time.

A recent hearing of the Disability Royal Commission highlighted the experiences of people living with disability working in Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs), which are currently allowed to operate outside the mainstream employment standards and protections. The Royal Commission heard that 17,232 people worked for an ADE during the 2020-21 financial year and that the Supported Employment Services Award permits an hourly rate of pay as low as $2.54 per hour for these workers. This type of segregated and exploitative employment very rarely provides a pathway to mainstream employment and traps workers in welfare dependency and poverty for life.

Additionally, Disability Employment Services (DES) are achieving poor outcomes for people living with disability seeking employment. DES currently cost the Commonwealth more than $1.4 billion a year with about 310,000 participants accessing services each month. However, a review of DES by Boston Consulting Group in August 2020 found that between July 2014 and March 2020 the number of unique participants was about 560,000, meaning the monthly participation rate reflects high rates of re-entry. About a third of participants in March 2020 had exited and re-entered DES at least once, with 52 per cent of re-entries occurring less than three months after exit.

In 2020, Boston Consulting Group also suggested that the average government expenditure per 26-week employment outcome achieved was about $38,400, although if a generous estimate of outcomes actually attributable to DES providers of 75 per cent were applied, then the average expenditure would increase to about $51,200 per 26-week placement. According to the Department of Social Service’s Annual Report for 2020-21, only 36 per cent of placements were sustained for 26 weeks while just 21 per cent reached 52 weeks. By these and many other measures, the quantity and quality of DES outcomes are not commensurate with the outlay of funding.

Although the Department has begun consultations about reforming the DES when the current model ends next year, the situation described above has continued for many years. This is despite employment being a key priority area under the National Disability Strategy since 2010. The new Australia’s Disability Strategy 2021-2031 again commits governments to improving employment outcomes and we hope that the accompanying Employment Targeted Action Plan will be strengthened to ensure that it delivers results, including by establishing greater accountability through more measurable targets. JFA Purple Orange is calling on all political parties and candidates in the federal election to set out clear policies that will turn the words and sentiments in these documents into meaningful actions and results.

We believe that national targets and regular data measurement are essential components of any plan that will be capable of driving genuine change and ensuring that there is accountability for results. Currently, there are some targets in some jurisdictions, but the approach is too ad hoc, and the ABS collects data too infrequently. Concerningly, the Outcomes Framework for the new Strategy states that employment outcomes will be measured according to the SDAC despite the most recent data being from 2018, as mentioned above. The ABS website indicates that the timing of the next data release is “unknown” (as of mid-April 2022). This approach is inadequate to monitor progress or deliver genuine change.

Addressing employment inequalities and discrimination for people living with disability deserves the same attention as that given to the gender pay gap, which is also a long-standing and unacceptable feature of Australia’s employment landscape. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency established in 2012 works to promote and improve workplace gender equality including by producing a national Scorecard every year and requiring non-public sector employers with 100 or more employees to submit an annual report.

Given the synergies between the Agency’s current role and what is required to drive employment outcomes for people living with disability, we believe that the Agency is best placed to expand its responsibilities as a renamed Workplace Equality Agency that is appropriately funded to achieve results more broadly. Indeed, many people experience more than one form of employment inequality or discrimination. Increasing diversity in all its forms will deliver significant benefits for workplaces and for our national economic prosperity.

The Agency currently receives about $7 million in funding per year and is the responsibility of the Minister for Women. We argue that the Agency’s funding should be significantly increased in line with expanding its scope of work and that it should sit within the portfolio responsibilities of the Department of Employment, Skills, and Education, as a mainstream policy focus rather than being treated as a special interest area only relevant to a portion of the Australian population per the current arrangement. The Agency should be responsible for investing in programs that support employers to build capacity, confidence, and awareness in employing people living with disability, which has been one of the major barriers to improving employment outcomes.

It should also be responsible for reinvigorating the Employment Assistance Fund (EAF) that provides financial help for work-related supports, modifications, and equipment. Many employers are currently unaware that they can access this support therefore the Agency could play a central role in promoting and building awareness of what is available. Additionally, the cap that applies to supports such as Auslan and captioning services needs to be reviewed to ensure that it provides a reasonable level of access for a full-time worker. This could form part of a larger review aimed at ensuring that the EAF is fit-for-purpose and keeping pace with changing work needs and the development of new technologies.

In summary, JFA Purple Orange is calling on all political parties and candidates in this election to commit to:

  • Reconstituting the Workplace Gender Equality Agency as the Workplace Equality Agency under the Department of Employment, Skills, and Education with a broader remit to end discrimination and promote workforce diversity in all its forms, including investing in actions that will deliver improved mainstream employment outcomes for people living with disability.
  • Establishing national annual targets for improving mainstream employment outcomes for people living with disability with the ultimate goal of achieving parity with non-disabled people by the completion of the new Australia’s Disability Strategy in 2031
  • Funding the ABS to undertake regular data collection regarding employment of people living with disability at least once per year and requiring the reconstituted Workplace Equality Agency to deliver national reports on progress in line with this data collection
  • Ensuring that the reformed Disability Employment Service (DES) produces genuine long-term mainstream employment outcomes. This requires that provider accountability measures are placed at the core of the new model so that funding is directed to the best performing programs. The reformed DES must be designed to work in tandem with the NDIA to help NDIS participants achieve their employment goals
  • Cancelling the Supported Employment Services Award within five years and requiring all Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs) to adopt and implement transition plans that end the segregated ‘sheltered workshop’ approach and move all workers onto mainstream Awards with pay rates at or above the Minimum Wage
  • Reviewing the adequacy of funding caps under the Employment Assistance Fund (EAF) and increasing its promotion to employers, many of whom remain unaware that this support is available when they employ a person living with disability
  • Maximising the participation of Australians living with disability in authentic mainstream waged employment represents a huge opportunity for our nation. Doing so will generate benefits for individuals, communities, and the economy, as well as enabling all Australians to share in the national employment success story in the future.



Do you commit to setting national targets and funding regular robust measurement of employment outcomes for Australians living with disability, reforming the Disability Employment Service (DES) in a way that will genuinely support people living with disability into meaningful sustainable mainstream employment, cancelling the Supported Employment Services Award within five years and transitioning Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs) out of the ’sheltered workshop’ approach, and investing in the promotion of the Employment Assistance Fund (EAF) to employers?


For further information, please contact Robbi Williams, CEO of JFA Purple Orange, on
(08) 8373 8333 or