Kymberly Martin

How legislation can change workforce barriers in the public service

The Disability Employment Conference was held in Sydney on May 1-2 with the theme ‘Employing Disability Matters’ that focused on employer engagement, working with young people with disability and quality services and supports.

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In a keynote presentation, Canadian Government Public Service Accessibility deputy minister Yazmine Laroche, the first woman with a disability to be a deputy minister in the history of the country’s public service, spoke about how new legislation has brought about change. While 22 per cent of the Canadian population lives with a disability and 9% are deemed to be “workforce available”, representation of people with disabilities among senior civil servants is currently 5.6 per cent. However, the government is committed to recruiting 5,000 people with disabilities by 2025, but according to Laroche recruitment alone will not solve the problem, with improving workplace conditions a priority.  

In 2019, Canada passed the Accessible Canada Act. In addition to the new law, the Federal Government recently released its Federal Public Service Accessibility Strategy, which aims to improve access and remove barriers for workers with disabilities in the public service.

“For 30 years I have lived with a disability but was not until this legislation was introduced that it felt that finally things were going to change. Up until then successive government have made attempts to do things around accessibility, but it was ad hoc and when the government changed it was easily forgotten,” Laroche said. 

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According to Laroche legislation achieves a couple of things, namely it says to the country and the people who are affected by the legislation that it means business.

“It also tells people with disability we are committed to making a difference.  Legislation delivers monetary penalties for those who don’t comply. It has teeth and has given tremendous hope to a lot of people with disability. Having legislation gives something for people to hang onto.”

Quotas was also raised in a question from the floor.

Laroche candidly admitted that she hated quotas. “We use metrics we are public servants we love to measure… we love data. I detest quotas because it sends a message that I am only doing this because I have been given this numerical target. It has nothing to do with productivity or talent, excellence or competitiveness, it is just about having to fill this number. It’s a fine line between targets and quotas but I do think publishing data is a great way of grabbing attention.”

Speaking to F2L following her presentation was facilitator and human rights activist Graeme Innes.

“The foundational piece for me in the presentation is that there is a piece of legislation we don’t have in Australia. “We have anti-discrimination legislation, but we don’t have a law that mandates accessibility. And the legislation in Canada is starting to drive access and raise expectations. It’s not the first time I have heard about legislation, sometimes maybe a strategy is enough and there is enough energy in Australia for change…but I wonder whether we need a law that mandates these things.

“I thought her conversation about targets and quotas was interesting and understand the logic about quotas and the problems with them. Businesses don’t do things if they don’t have targets. What you don’t count doesn’t count.

“However, using data and comparing one organisation with the other is a bit of back door approach to have targets in my view, which is fine if that works but publishing data and measuring departments against one another is also a powerful thing to do. I was intrigued by that example.

“I thought the idea of running a survey was useful to draw in people’s views and experiences was helpful. We are not collecting nearly enough of that data in Australia. What you are getting is departments’ individual approaches whereas she is in a role coordinating that nationally and you are always going to get better impact doing that.”

Asked whether the new Labor Government would consider such legislation, Innes believes it might be more prepared to learn from international experience.

In Australia, state and territory governments are signatories to a 10-year national disability employment strategy. There are currently, around 4.5 per cent of public service employees in Australia identified as having a disability, but the aim is to raise this to 7 per cent by 2025.

In a panel session on improving employment outcomes for young people with disability NOVA Employment CEO Martin Wren said he was concerned that aspects of service funding contain disincentives to full participation. “Service providers need to be held accountable for the number of minimum hour wages and the answer is to tell consumers the questions they need to ask such as: “How many people with my disability have you placed full or part time and how long do the positions you find last on average?” According to Wren this interrogation empowers service users and makes providers accountable. Wren was also presented with a Hall of Fame award for raising awareness well beyond the DES program and sector through his inauguration and development of the Focus on Ability Film Festival and its positive promotion of people with disability.  (Pictured with DEA CEO Rick Kane and DEA chair Thérèse Campbell).

Another panellist, Get Skilled Access CEO, Dani Fraillon said 85 per cent of their team have a disability. “We started our organisation to be inclusive from the word go. All our processes and systems are accessible, and we don’t buy or use anything that our people cannot access. People with disability design all our programs.”  The organisation is building a platform to help people with disability find employment that will be totally inclusive across all disabilities which she believed would be a “world first”.

DEA chair, Thérèse Campbell highlighted the opportunities and challenges facing the disability employment sector in her welcome message that included: the rollout of the Disability Employment Strategy, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, the NDIS Participant Employment Strategy and the commencement of the Workforce Australia and Transition to Work contracts. 

CEO Rick Kane spoke about the DES program and the roller coast ride it has delivered to participants, providers and employers. “We see a real opportunity with the new government that we will reinstate the need to do this longitudinal understanding of what DES does and the expectation of the quality of service to get a job will supersede the job for jobs sake,” he said.