BLIND workers employed by the charitable Vision Australia say they have become the latest victims of a corporate culture that puts profits before people.
Seventy-three blind and vision-impaired employees of Vision Australia Enterprises warehouses in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane will be made redundant following a decision earlier this month to shut the business down because it was losing money.
Some workers have been employed there for decades, and will find it almost impossible to gain a job elsewhere. They often have other disabilities on top of being blind.
The workers are employed in assembly line jobs like packaging, labelling, assembling, logistics and distribution for companies that contract its services. Supported employment in the warehouses has allowed the workers to plan their futures.
But their union is warning that if the decision is not reversed, staff will not be able to afford their mortgages, pay their rent, provide for their children, or keep themselves functioning as independent members of their community. It will also close an avenue for employment for future generations of blind people.
Martin Stewart from the Blind Workers’ Union says Vision Australia, which with 50,000 clients is Australia’s largest provider of services to the blind, has lost its sense of direction by putting business interests ahead of the well-being of the workers. He said the enterprise has always made losses, but was never set up as a profit-making exercise. Instead, its mission was to provide manual employment for blind workers so they did not rely totally on benefits or welfare.
“It’s now being run by corporate people, rather than people with proper understanding [of the blind] – they’ve got dollar signs in their eyes. They’ve brought a corporate style of attitude where they don’t regard this as a core service, they regard it as a business that is losing money, and they began to call any losses debts, when in fact it’s charitable expenditure.
“Yes, it loses money, but it’s necessary expenditure if you regard that as part of your natural service as a charity.”
The workers at the Melbourne warehouse in the inner city suburb Kensington include Gena Kacowicz (pictured above), who has worked for Vision Australia since 1985, when it was still known as the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind. She said the workers and their union were determined to force Vision Australia to reverse its decision.
“This job makes me want to get up in the morning, because I know I have got something to do and somewhere to go,” she said.
“It’s just nice to think there’s a job there and I feel very angry about this, angry, disgusted and upset, because I don’t want to lose my job because I will never get another one. I want to fight to the bitter end.”
Simon Giddings, a fully-blind father of three young children (above, right), said that even though the wages were below the minimum for “open” employment, the money he earned from his job was “the difference between getting fed and not getting fed”.
He said he would also struggle to find other low-skilled work.
“The reality is that our more stringent health and safety laws have had the effect that cautious employers in the litigious society we have don’t employ blind people in manual labour any more.
“If you’re sighted, you’ve got road digging, cleaning, all other manual labour, but for blind people, there’s nothing else. Not everyone has computer skills, and most of the people here would not be suited to working in a call centre.”
For many of the workers, their employment at Vision Australia Enterprises is much more than a job – it is a lifeline to the outside world.
Michael Doherty, 50 (above, centre), is totally deaf-blind and communicates by touch. If he loses his job, he will be almost completely socially isolated.
In a media release earlier this month, the Chief Executive Officer of Vision Australia Ron Hooton, said the decision to close Vision Australia Enterprises followed an internal review of the business, which has made substantial losses over a number of years. He described the decision as sad but unavoidable, and said the closure would take place over three months. Up to 12 staff may be redeployed.
The Blind Workers’ Union and United Voice Queensland are planning a series of public events to highlight their situation, beginning with a rally in Melbourne this Sunday. Beginning at Flinders Street Station at midday, it will march through the city to Federation Square.
They are also seeking signatures for a change.org petition to the House of Representatives.
Victorian ASU members at Macaulay Road moved the following resolution in support of the Blind workers:
"This meeting of Australian Services Union (ASU) members at Macaulay Road Kensington calls on Vision Australia management to recommence negotiations with the Blind Workers Union (BWU) about the future of Vision Australia Enterprises. The meeting also calls on Vision Australia management to commit to the ongoing operation of Vision Australia Enterprises."
All Vision Australia unions showed solidarity throughout the lengthy bargaining process recently and this is now being called upon to support the blind workers affected by the proposed closures.