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A sheltered workshop is an organisation that provides employment opportunities for people with disabilities and/or those from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as ethnic minority groups, the long-term unemployed, and those returning to the workforce after a period of rehabilitation. The word 'sheltered' refers to a protective environment where disadvantaged people can undertake paid meaningful employment in a supportive environment. The term 'sheltered workshop' is considered outdated in favour of social enterprise, especially in the UK, the US and increasingly in Australia. However the notion of 'social enterprise' implies that the organisation would trade in the market and take on a degree of business risk, and not be completely dependent on government subsidy, as the traditional model of the sheltered workshop may allow. In this newer model, the enterprise might receive a subsidy in compensation for the reduced productivity of its disadvantaged workers, in order to allow it to compete on a "level playing field" with conventional firms. In Australia, funding can only be used to provide training and support to is 'supported' employees. This type of employment is in contrast to 'open employment' where people with disabilities, and (from) disadvantaged groups, enter mainstream or 'open' employment.[1]

The following summary of difference between working in so called ‘Open Employment’ as compared to working full or part time for a social enterprise such as Cumberland Industries Ltd. It may be of particular interest for those interested in transition from school to work.

Question 1: What is Open Employment? Answer: Open Employment is the term used to define where people with a disability work in mainstream jobs. It is an excellent goal for people with a disability to achieve and should be considered as a viable option. The difficulty being is there generally are lower levels of long term support provided to people with a disability beyond a settling in period. As a result, those with special support needs are often left to fend for themselves. For those with a developmental or intellectual disability this can be problematic.

Question 2: What is an Australian Disability Business Enterprise? Answer: Australian Disability Business Enterprises (formerly known as ‘business services’ or (more obsolete term) ‘sheltered workshops, are community-based organizations set up by parents of children with disabilities (or special needs) to provide employment and support. Most of these organizations have parents or family members on the board, many of which are successful professional or business people who provide governance on a voluntary basis. Quite simply, these are people who share a genuine concern and desire to support their sons and daughters (and the sons and daughters of others). This support includes: vocational training, personal development, social skill development, together with an income based on their competency and productive output (see Wage Tool) and most importantly for many – retention of the Disability Support Pension and other benefits .

Question 3: So what’s the difference between Open Employment and a Disability Business Enterprise? Answer: Commercial businesses operate for the benefit of deriving a profit and making a return to its investors/owners/shareholders. A Disability Business Enterprise has a dual purpose: one is to make a surplus to sustain and grow its business (in order to invest in new equipment and employment opportunities), compared to mainstream employers whose primary goal is to maximize profits and shareholder return.

Question 4: What is special about Cumberland Industries as a Disability Business Enterprise? Answer: Cumberland Industries ( is one of Australia’s leading employers of people with disability. It provides a wide range of job opportunities from a diverse range of businesses (depending on location) in a competitive setting. The company is involved in: food manufacturing (it owns and operates Enrico’s Kitchen); meat and poultry processing; confectionery manufacturing (it owns and operates Aussie Sweets); pharmaceutical packing; general packing and assembly; industrial sewing; hospitality; operates a conference centre and more!

Question 5: What are some of the meaningful outcomes achieved for employees at Cumberland Industries? Answer: According to a survey of over 500 employees at Cumberland, the outcomes include: - “…form new friendships” and “be happy with my workmates.” - “…opportunity to learn new skills” and “develop a career”. - “…been trained and promoted to Leading Hand, as well as being the Employee Representative.” - “…have my own personal development program so I can be better in my job. - “…to earn a wage based on what I can do.” - “…can keep my pension and benefits, plus earn a wage”. - “…to work with people who really care about me.”

Question 6: Aren’t Disability Employment Enterprises, such as Cumberland Industries segregating people with a disability from the mainstream? Answer: Cumberland Industries employs a large number of so called able bodied workers, not just people with a disability. It has pioneered in Australia a reverse-integration model, whereby people of ALL abilities work alongside each other in harmony and respect, they each engage in a range of ‘normal’ social activities such as travel to and from work, social functions and attend training courses. Cumberland Industries Wage tool also enables employees to work towards earning a full award rate and apply for ‘able bodied’ positions within Cumberland.

Question 7: Very few people move on (or transition) from being employed at a Disability Employment Enterprise, to working in Open Employment. Why is this? Answer: Based on annual independent surveys conducted with its employees, people with a disability working at Cumberland, quite simply love their job! They say they enjoy working alongside their mates, and in learning new skills. In short, they are happy! This is why 98% of its employees choose to stay at Cumberland with just 2% moving into Open Employment (incidentally, 75% of those that try Open Employment return back to Cumberland). Open Employment is a valuable option for people with a disability but at the end of the day it is a question of individual choice.

Question 8: What about the wages, doesn’t Open Employment offer higher wages than a Disability Employment Enterprise? Answer: It is true, according to government surveys, that people with a disability working in Open Employment, on average, receive higher wages than those working at a Disability Employment Enterprise. If obtaining the highest possible wage (in the short term), and forgoing the Disability Pension (and Benefits) is preferred, then Open Employment is a good choice. Those working for Cumberland Industries are paid in accordance to a Wage Tool approved by the Fair Pay Commission. This means a worker is assessed (at least annually) on their productive output, and other measures such as competency and ability to work unsupervised - to determine a pro-rata percentage of the relevant Award. This can be as low as 15% of the Award (+ Pension), up to 100% of the Award.

At Cumberland Industries it is possible to earn full Award wages, (the same as offered in Open Employment) for those who progress and develop their skills and productive output. More commonly, employees regularly enjoy pay increases of 20%, 30% and 50% (and higher), over time, as they develop. While not everyone may develop to 100% of the Award, every one is provided the opportunity to be the ‘best they can be’, including their level of wages through ongoing support, training and skill development.

Question 9: Why don’t the various specialized disability employment agencies want people with a disability to work in Disability Employment Enterprises (or Sheltered Workshops)? Answer: Most disability employment agencies are honest, ethical people wanting to do (what they believe) to be the best for their individual clients, however, they are compromised insomuch as the government funding they receive will only apply if they direct clients to Open Employment. They are not regarded as achieving an “outcome” if they refer a client to an organization such as Cumberland Industries. This is because the government wants to reduce the number of people receiving the disability support pension and by moving people off the pension and into Open Employment it saves the government money. While this is good for government and arguably the national economy interests, it does relegate the needs of the individual person who through no fault of their own has a disability. Loss of the Pharmaceutical Benefits to many people with disability with high medication needs can be a substantial price to pay for working in Open Employment. At Cumberland Industries, it is suggested people with a disability considering employment options carefully review the full story and what is the best outcome for their own personal situation. This is what we call making an “informed choice” which is based on individual needs. (source: Dr Stephen Treloar, January 2009)

See also


  1. Treloar, Stephen Dr. (2002) "Models of vocational employment for ‘people with a disability’ in Sweden, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and the United States of America". The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust of Australia. Retrieved on: August 6, 2007.


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