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Covid’s disabling sting

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Disappearing work contracts spell tough times for disability employment agencies.  Viv Posselt talks to one of them, Achievement House in Cambridge.

Cambridge duo Jenna Tutbury and Carl Smith adding labels to bottles. 

Achievement House is feeling the post-Covid pinch as a drop in the number of contracts impact on its ability to provide a steady level of employment for people with disabilities.

It has always been something of a struggle, says manager Neil Fynn, but the post-pandemic disruptions has exacerbated the problem.

He said several contracts had ended in the past few years, and he wants to make 2024 all about bringing new ones on board.  The reasons they fall away are not always made clear, he added.  They lost a major contract in 2022 as a firm was bought out by an international player who closed it and moved offshore, while others were lost to post-pandemic changes made to the way companies operate.

Whatever the reason, the result for Achievement House, and for other facilities like it, is a shrinking and unpredictable workload with which to keep their staff fully occupied on a regular basis.

Achievement House manager Neil Fynn and his assistant Shelby McClelland hope 2024 bring more work contracts.

Fynn said Achievement House has more than 40 people on its books.

“Between 23 to 25 are here on any given day, but we now find there are times when there is simply not enough work for them to do.  When that happens, they can choose to either stay here and do something of their own, or they can go home,” he said. “Ideally, however, we would like to have enough regular incoming work to ensure everyone is busy and engaged all day… able to feel that they are contributing members of the community.”

Achievement House is one of nine New Zealand disability enterprises that offer employment opportunities to people with a range of disabilities.  They come from around the region, choosing to work the days and hours that best align with their lifestyle.  Because of the range of disabilities they have, the tasks they do are varied, with some being understandably limited, Fynn said.

Jeremy Piercy of Hamilton seals metal rods into plastic tubes.

They specialise in the assembly, collation, labelling and packaging of small, lightweight components for various industries, and contract arrangements can either be for one-offs or long-term.

“Where the rest of the working world increases its use of mechanisation, we are exactly the opposite.  We need tasks that are as labour intensive as possible… our aim is to provide our staff with work they can do within their abilities.  They do hand-assembled, repetitive tasks that fulfil a crucial component in the manufacturing process, with minimal use of machinery.

“We don’t operate as your standard commercial workplace.  We must accommodate the different requirements our staff bring, which means we are very time-tolerant with our workforce.  Our quality control, however, is extremely rigid… there is no leeway given because we are a disability organisation.”

Much of the short-term work they have done over the years has segued into larger contracts, some of them for well-known companies with international links.

John Fayerman of Cambridge counts and packages plastic bottles.

They do work for award-winning company Shoof International, working on components for animal husbandry products such as leg straps and the like.  Other projects have come from Houston-based MRC Global, a leading global distributor of pipes, vales, PVC fittings and the like that has a presence in Hamilton.  Also on board is Holdfast in Hamilton, now operating under Soudal ownership, as well as Rukuhia-based Smiths Elements & Controls, and NZ Industrial Fittings out of Rotorua.

The advantages to companies are many, Fynn said.  By outsourcing to Achievement House the sort of work that would normally be done using a costly robotic system or a workers’ production line, companies can avoid having to factor in recruitment and training, or HR issues. Plus, many of today’s firms seek a strategic ‘add-on’ that reflects a philanthropic side – it is an arrangement of mutual benefit and one he hopes to tap into.

“What is often not recognised in our case is that we are a serious not-for-profit enterprise whose sole purpose is to create and provide work for disabled persons. We fill an important function for all sorts of industries and can be utilised far more than at present,” Fynn said.  “Much of our work comes via word of mouth, and I’m hoping that with the growth in industry in the Waikato, we will be able to find new contracts to take us into the future.”

Hamilton’s Hone Paki adds new taps to plumbing fittings.

Separating out tasks at the table are Hamilton’s Teo Iurcu, June Pressagh, Vincent van Schalkwyk and Max Nichol, and Cambridge’s Mele Wood.

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About Author

Viv Posselt

Viv Posselt began life in Edinburgh, soon after moved to Rhodesia (as it was called then), followed her father into journalism, covered the war in Zimbabwe and its aftermath, moved to South Africa where she ran a bureau for several large dailies, and eventually came to New Zealand for a quieter and safer life in Cambridge.