1 NEWS learns some disabled people being paid as little as 89 cents an hour to work in NZ - and it's legal

People with disabilities are being paid as little as 89 cents an hour to work in New Zealand, while hundreds are earning less than $5 an hour - and it's all legal.

Advocacy groups say it’s exploitation, but some in the sector, including workers, say it’s not all about the money. Source: 1 NEWS

In the last three years, 1500 minimum wage exemptions have been granted by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment for businesses that employ disabled people.

1 NEWS has learned that more than two-thirds of those workers are paid less than $5 an hour for their work.

Information obtained under the Official Information Act shows five of the lowest paid employees with disabilities earn less than $1 an hour - the minimum wage in New Zealand is $16.50.

One employee, who has Down syndrome and works in community service was being paid 89c.

A handful of others were earning 92c. The IHC's advocacy director, Trish Grant, says it's got to stop.

"The minimum wage exemptions are a weird arrangement where people earn very little money for working hard and that's not fair and it's not right," Ms Grant says.


Ms Grant says in some cases vulnerable people are being exploited by bad operators.

"People earning less than a dollar an hour, they don't have any idea about their employment conditions, they may have an employment agreement but they're not getting annual leave or sick leave those sorts of things," she says.

The IHC has been lobbying successive government to change the rules.

"The Social Development Ministry and MBIE need to immediately review all of the practice so any poor practice doesn't continue.

"Also there needs to be some incentives for those businesses that are supporting disabled workers well, by improving their skills and by ensuring they have got some pathway to the open market," Ms Grant says.

The Government is looking to put an end to the minimum wage exemption for disabled workers.

The Minister for Disability Issues Carmel Sepuloni was blunt when asked what she made of it by 1 NEWS this week.

"It's not acceptable, actually we know that it's discriminatory, it runs against the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities."

Ms Sepuloni is waiting to receive more advice on what action to take this month.

At Southland Disability Enterprises in Invercargill, more than 80 staff with disabilities help to recycle the region's waste, as part of a special government contract.

While many are paid less than the minimum wage they also receive a separate disability allowance from the Government.


Cameron Frethey works there and specialises in dismantling computers and recycling wiring too.

Mr Frethey told 1 NEWS he loves going to work. "I make quite a lot of friends and it's also nice to help others."

His boss, General Manager Hamish McMurdo, is worried that if the Government isn't careful operations like his could become economically un-viable and his team could just end up being at home.

He says Southland Disability Enterprises puts enormous emphasis into social activities for their staff, and he says for them it's about more than money.

"We offer discos, dances, dinners out, get-togethers and really promote the social aspect of our family here really," he says.

Ms Sepuloni knows the Government will have to tread carefully.

"When we make any changes in this space we have to look at what the wider repercussions are.

We have to make sure it's fair and that they're no worse off - in fact, they should be better off."

- By 1 NEWS political reporter Benedict Collins