Disabled workers are earning significantly less on average than non-disabled people, and the gap has been widening, a TUC meeting heard this week.
The event, held to mark UK Disability History Month, examined the extent of the “exclusion and devaluing” of disabled workers, and the wider impact of the cost-of-living crisis on disabled people.
Ann Galpin, co-chair of the TUC disabled workers’ committee, told the meeting that two new pieces of TUC research on the conditions faced by disabled workers “do not paint a happy picture”.
She said: “The exclusion and devaluing of disabled workers is a result of systematic ableism that is too readily accepted and normalised.”
Galpin, who also chairs the disabled members’ council of the National Union of Journalists, said new TUC research had shown nearly three-quarters of disabled workers (72 per cent) earn less than £15 an hour, compared with about half of non-disabled workers (54 per cent).
She said the increase in the minimum wage announced by the chancellor in his autumn statement – an increase to £10.42 an hour from 1 April 2023 for those aged 23 and over – “doesn’t go anywhere near far enough in lifting workers out of poverty”.
Galpin said this was even worse in some parts of the country, including the West Midlands (85 per cent of disabled workers earning less than £15 an hour) and the north-east of England (82 per cent).
The TUC analysis also showed that disabled workers are more likely to be employed on zero hours contracts (4.4 per cent compared with 2.9 per cent of non-disabled workers), where they have no guarantee of shifts from one week to the next and their income is “subject to the whims of managers”.
She said: “This makes it hard for workers to plan their lives, look after their children and get to medical appointments, and it makes it harder for workers to challenge unacceptable behaviour by bosses because of concerns about whether they will be penalised by not being allocated hours in future.
“Try negotiating reasonable adjustments on a zero hours contract!”
Further TUC research published last month shows non-disabled workers earn 17.2 per cent more than disabled workers on average, an increase from 16.5 per cent last year.
This disability pay gap – £3,731 per year for someone working a 35-hour week – means disabled people effectively work for free for the last 54 days of the year.
Galpin said it was “appalling that this gap has widened and that we are going backwards”.
Disabled workers are also twice as likely as non-disabled workers to be unemployed (6.8 per cent compared to 3.4 per cent).
The TUC has called for more funding for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to allow the watchdog to enforce disabled workers’ rights to reasonable adjustments, and a stronger legal framework for reasonable adjustments.
Galpin said: “It’s high time for big employers to be forced to take action to support disabled people.
“They must publish their disability pay gaps to help shine a light on the situation.”
She said the TUC wanted the UK government to bring in a statutory requirement for employers of more than 50 staff to report their disability pay gap, as already exists for gender pay gaps.
And she said that disabled workers were over-represented in lower-paid industries, which was likely to be one of the reasons for the disability pay gap.
She said: “The pay gap is also caused by over-representation in part-time work, in insecure jobs, and is linked to discrimination and employers failing to provide reasonable adjustments.”
Rick Burgess, of Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, and the Greater Manchester Disabled People’s Panel, spoke of the cost-of-living results produced by a survey of disabled people carried out by the panel earlier this year.
Even though the survey was carried out in July, one-fifth of disabled people were already saying they could not afford essentials and were “below the coping line”, while another 28 per cent could only afford essentials.
He said: “One of the strongest messages that came through from the survey was there’s a very strong correlation between poor housing and a host of other issues.
“If your housing is low equality, it’s inaccessible, it’s much more likely you’ll have very poor health, that you’ll have greater debts, that you’ll have greater unemployment, that you’ll experience more hate crime.
“There’s a real fundamental crisis in social housing [and] the poisonous fruits of that are now very apparent.”
He told the meeting: “In a social model way of thinking, we consider that austerity is a barrier, a disabling barrier, and we cannot see our liberty, our liberation or our rights realised while austerity exists and that particularly goes to the Labour party, who at the moment are indicating they will continue with austerity.
“Austerity has to end.”
Disabled activist and author Ellen Clifford*, whose presentation was read out by Saliha Rashid, a colleague from Disabled People Against Cuts, told the meeting: “The cost-of living crisis not only continues but steps up the war on disabled people.
“(It is) another example where disabled people are disproportionately impacted and another example where mitigation measures introduced by the government won’t go nearly far enough to prevent serious adverse impacts, not only in terms of harm experienced by individuals but also on a societal level, deepening existing inequalities.
“The cost-of-living crisis is also another example where disabled campaigners have added further strain to our already overstretched daily lives.
“In order to fight for greater recognition of the oppression disabled people face, it’s a terrible aspect of disability activism that we burn out and die so relatively young.”
She said: “We need warriors like them now more than ever as things continue to get worse for disabled people.”
Colleen Johnson, a member of the TUC disabled workers’ committee, said members of her union – the National Education Union – were reporting that they could not afford to charge their mobility aids and power vital medical equipment, or keep their homes warm enough to avoid damaging their health.
She said the cost-of-living crisis was “yet another barrier facing disabled people in particular”.
She said the NEU believed in the importance of disabled workers self-identifying as disabled people to their union, and then – as soon as possible – to their employer.
She said: “The earlier this is done the better, rather than waiting until the crisis point has been reached.
“That way the member has a right to reasonable adjustments when needed under the Equality Act.”
Jon Luxton, who has been a special adviser on disability to the Welsh government for the last three years, said: “We know how bad the situation has been and we know about the cost-of-living crisis.
“It has not just come about this year for disabled people, it has been a growing crisis since 2008 really. It’s pretty dire and people die because of it.”
He told the meeting that 68 per cent of Covid-related deaths in Wales were of disabled people, compared with 58 per cent of Covid deaths in England, which was “a massive difference”.
The Locked Out report analysed the impact of the pandemic on disabled people in Wales, and was produced by disabled people with the support of the Welsh government.
The report found that social factors such as “discrimination, poor housing, poverty, employment status, institutionalisation, lack of [personal and protective equipment], poor and patchy services, inaccessible and confusing public information and personal circumstances” had “significantly contributed” to this high proportion of Covid-related deaths.
*Ellen Clifford is author of The War On Disabled People, an account of the decade since the election of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition in May 2010 from the perspective of a disabled activist
Picture: (Left to right) Colleen Johnson, Rick Burgess and Ann Galpin
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…