Is unpaid work better than no work?

I met a Shared Lives carer recently who told me about the effort he’d put into helping to get a job for the young man who lived with him. We’ll call the Shared Lives carer Mark and the man who lived with him Pete. Pete is mad about cars and really wanted to work in a car showroom. When Pete was out, Mark took it upon himself to visit all the car showrooms in the area to tell them about Pete and to ask if there was any chance of him doing some work with them. He told me he decided to do this by himself rather than with Pete because he didn’t like the idea of Pete facing the inevitable rejection he thought he’d find. This caution was borne out by the showroom owner who was willing to let Pete do some work at his showroom but said some worrying things about disabled people, so Mark turned him down and explained why, much to his indignation. Eventually Mark found a car hire shop who were up for it and who he felt would treat Pete with respect. Pete still works there, washing cars. He’s happy there and treated like one of the boys by the other workers, to the extent that Mark has had to give him some pointers about when you can and can’t quote car mechanics’ jokes in “polite” company…

It’s a great example of the way that Shared Lives carers go the extra mile. And then run a marathon for good measure.

The only thing is, Pete doesn’t get paid for the work he does. Does this mean that he’s not valued, or worse, exploited? Contrast this with an organisation called Change, based in Leeds, which employs someone with a learning disability alongside each non-disabled post-holder, on equal salaries. Change’s example is inspirational. But it’s also almost unique. In an ideal world, well-paid, meaningful work would be the norm for people with learning disabilities, but in a far from ideal world, do we reject work that isn’t fairly paid and keep on looking for the perfect job?

Pete likes the informality of not being in a paid job and if he did get paid, he could find himself worse off financially, because he would lose some benefits and jeopardise others.

I was talking to someone else who supported a young man who was very keen on motorbikes. This young man spent so much time hanging around the local bike shop that they started handing him a broom from time to time to sweep up. From there, he started doing bits and pieces to help out and in time, the shop started to pay him for a few hours work every Saturday.

Someone else who has created their own job, in fact her own business, is Jenny. Jenny is passionate about dance, but couldn’t find a way to pursue that passion as a career. With lots of help from her family and the support of a personal assistant, Jenny created DanceSyndrome, her own micro-enterprise, and now she works with a number of other dancers to deliver dance sessions to disabled and non-disabled people.

As unemployment rises, plenty of non-disabled people will find themselves doing work that they hate just to get by. So what should our ambitions be around employment for people with learning disabilities? Change is uncompromising in its pursuit of equalities. Jenny is a genuine entrepreneur. The bike enthusiast created a job from nothing. Pete has his first experience of a workplace.

All of these seem to be steps in the right direction. To move any further forwards, we will need a benefits system that allows people to experiment with work without risking their financial security. Those supporting people with learning disabilities will need a new focus on employment. And we will need to change everyone’s expectations.

One thought on “Is unpaid work better than no work?

  1. Angela Lane November 25, 2010 / 10:38 pm

    Not leaving much of a reply… just a heartfelt joy at hearing like-hearted thoughts about the work that will give us all lives to be proud of. Unlike many enterprises, I look for people who are doing it better than us to get the lead on which way to head. Success is a step that moves in the direction of ‘I am really alive’, so many are still told to ‘wait until we think you are ready’ and forget that we were all ‘born ready’. Thanks x

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