Blind Workers’ Union fights factory closures

"Vision Australia – keep manual labour!”, chanted protesters at the hundred-strong Blind Workers’ Union demonstration in Melbourne on Sunday, 15 September. Blind and vision-impaired workers and their supporters formed a chain of white canes that stretched the entire length of Vision Australia’s Kensington headquarters. They were protesting the charity’s plans to shut down VA Enterprises (VAE).

At stake are the livelihoods of 73 workers, one of whom is Margaret Shanahan, president of the Blind Workers’ Union. She described the devastating impact that the closure will have: “For most people, if they close VAE it’ll be their last pay day; they won’t get more work. Just like everyone else, we’ve got families to support, mortgages or rent and bills.”

According to the union’s vice president, Martin Stewart, these employees are “without question, the most disadvantaged workforce in Australia”.

Shanahan explains, “Fifty-eight of us are blind or vision impaired, and 95 percent of the workers have additional disabilities, cognitive and physical. Our skills are in manual labour, so there are no outside employment opportunities for those workers to use those manual skills.

“In open enterprises now, health and safety laws make it difficult for employers to take on people with disabilities, especially vision loss … It’s got to stay”, she argues. “It’s not only the people who work there now who’ll lose their jobs but people now [unemployed] at home or babies being born today. It’s got to be here for now and the future.”

Anger at the direction of Vision Australia was reflected in the chant, “Put people before profits!” The crowd reacted vocally when a speaker highlighted the $400,000 salary of Vision Australia’s CEO, Ron Hooton. Most workers at VAE earn around $20,000 a year.

VAE, which has two factories in Melbourne and Brisbane (plus three workers in Sydney), was long considered a core service of Vision Australia. But in 2009 the Vision Australia board redefined it as a business, and says it will no longer accept running the “business” at a loss.

Speaking to Red Flag, David Ditchfield contrasted the board’s current approach with the ethos when he worked in the factory, then in St Kilda Road, in the early 1950s: “The institute was desperate for money but there was never any talk of closing it down. The policy was for blind people in view of the fact that they had limited funds.” He adds, “There wasn’t large funding from the state like there is now. We had to have auxiliaries in the community raising funds for our cause.”

The Melbourne factory for the blind has operated for more than 130 years, and has always run at a loss. Martin Stewart addressed the demonstration with pride about what has been produced over those 130 years: weaving baskets in the early days, later woodworking, making many products including office furniture and outdoor furniture.

The factory stands as “a showcase of what blind people do … with great purpose and with great ability, not disability!”, he said.

There is no good reason for it to shut, especially given the charity’s substantial revenue. As ACTU president Ged Kearney pointed out, Vision Australia receives over $30 million each year in donations, holds assets worth over $178 million and last financial year reported revenue of more than $84 million.

Opponents of the closure feel that Vision Australia is betraying blind workers. In woodworker Frank O’Brien’s opinion, “They claim to be the nation’s leading provider for the blind and vision impaired but they’re [prioritising] cutting costs and making a profit.”

Martin Stewart’s voice rings out through the loudspeakers: “We are here today – we shouldn’t be here today! We are standing with our canes, not as a guiding implement today but – disgracefully – as a protection against our own organisation!”

The demonstration’s appeal – “Have some vision, change your decision” – is backed up by the workers’ determination. The Blind Workers’ Union has been around for decades, and as Stewart tells Red Flag, it has fought – and won – before.

In the ’80s they had “picket lines and people arrested to get rights in superannuation” and the right to have their wages indexed with the cost of living. “It wasn’t accorded [to vision impaired workers], but it is now because we won that, it was successful action.”

Gina Cassidy, a VAE worker, asserts: “We are blind people, we deserve a life. We don’t deserve to be in the scrapheap … We have got every right to have our jobs and we will keep this up until we get somewhere!”

Stewart refers to the showbags they’re currently working on for the Melbourne Show. “Vision Australia says this’ll be the last time you pack those bags. We say no! We say next year, the year after, the year after, we’ll be working on those showbags, won’t we guys?” “Yeah!”, the crowd cheers.