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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Philip Davies and the Minimum Wage for Disabled People

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Some part of me wants ironically to celebrate the recent comments of Conservative MP Philip Davies, in which he argued that disabled people should be allowed to work for less than the minimum wage. It reveals that for all the folksy charm exuded by the Conservative party leadership, the party remains rooted in free market ideology, with an accompanying disregard for social welfare.

In a Commons debate, Davies argued that:
Given some of those people with a learning disability clearly, by definition, cannot be as productive in their work as somebody who has not got a disability of that nature, then it was inevitable given the employer was going to have to pay them both the same they were going to take on the person who was going to be more productive, less of a risk...My view is that for some people, the national minimum wage may be more of a hindrance than a help.
This is a comment that on many levels rejects the best social policies implemented by the previous Labour government.

The Disability Discrimination Act compels employers to make reasonable allowances to the working environment so that employees with a disability are able to work at a comparable level to those without. Davies' assumption that the market should determine what it is willing to pay for labour - with anyone with a disability automatically less valuable than anyone without - is a hideous extension of Thatcherite liberalism. I notice that, unsurprisingly, Dominic Lawson, son of Thatcher's former chancellor, has now written an op-ed in The Independent in support of Davies.

Disabled people ought not to be seen as cheap or inferior labour. With a bit of thought and through the legislative encouragement of the state, employers can make adjustments to ensure that disabled people can offer equal labour-value to anyone else. Of course, there will always be a limit to the changes employers can make, and some jobs for which some disabled people will always be excluded. But the laissez-faire economic attitude that says we should not even worry about trying to place disabled people on an equal footing in the workplace is fundamentally immoral.

Then there is the issue of the minimum wage, something the Tories reviled when Labour introduced it in the 1990s. They fed us scare stories about how it would decimate employment. In fact, the minimum wage has had little impact on overall employment, other than to prevent the exploitation of low-skilled workers and to ensure that work pays sufficiently to allow people to live in economic security. The minimum wage is precisely that, a living minimum. Would Davies be happy to work for, say, £4.00 an hour, earning £100 a week? No disabled person should feel compelled to do this.

Finally, there is the assumption that people with a learning disability "clearly, by definition" cannot be as "productive" as those without. But learning disabilities come in various guises; they do not automatically entail a lack of productivity (as if such a person is a broken machine).

Can someone with Down's Syndrome really be incapable of working in a workplace where they have to face the public? Might someone with dyslexia not actually learn to transcend their disability (I know of two university English professors who have dyslexia)? Might someone with autism not actually be superior in jobs with require mathematical or logical thinking? History is littered with examples of people with "disabilities" who have turned these to their advantage, or for whom the disability is just a small part of a whole person who has excelled in their chosen field: the schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, the artist Alison Lapper, the physicist Steven Hawking.

If Davies' vision is followed to its logical conclusion, the market should be allowed to freely discriminate among those people it has conventionally regarded as weaker, less capable, or more awkward workers: ethnic minorities, women, those with disabilities. Perhaps Davies would prefer it if women were allowed to work for less than the minimum wage - acknowledging the "disablements" caused by their childcare demands that have, traditionally, led employers to discriminate on gender grounds. Perhaps Davies feels that black people should be allowed to offer their services for a less - acknowledging that employers are doing them a favour by employing a group (allegedly) prone to crime and violence. I am sure, in fact, that even Davies and his Conservative ilk, much though they loathe the human rights act and discrimination legislation, would vouch for neither of these things.

Why then should employers be allowed to discriminate against someone with a weaker body or a differently constituted mind? It would certainly be a good thing to get more disabled people into work. But doing this should not require the individual to adapt to the exploitations of the market, but the market to change its notion of what constitutes a "productive" human being.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:26 am


Blogger Shane said...

Well said. What surprised me most about Davies' comments was his inability to see why anyone might consider them offensive. His suggestion appears to show either a disregard for the purpose of a minimum wage or a cynical attempt to dismantle the principle of fair pay without actually repealing the law in question. I find either possibility distasteful.

2:57 pm  

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