Confidence, fellowship and belonging part of allure for Attainable Trust’s intellectually disabled workforce
Keith Shelley gets to work early. Really early. The gates don't open until 7.30, but he's outside by "six or five past, depending on the buses".
"Ex-freezing worker," he tells me. "I'm stuck on freezing-worker time."
That explains early rising, but not what he's doing before dawn sitting by a chain-link fence down a Papatoetoe side street. His boss, Murray Clark, helps me out.
"It's not uncommon for people to be queuing at the gate before seven o'clock," he explains. "They come here because they enjoy it."
It's not standard workplace practice, perhaps, but Shelley and Clark share a workplace with a difference. The Attainable Trust is the 21st-century version of what I grew up calling the Sheltered Workshop - a place where people with moderate to severe intellectual disability find meaning in their lives because they have jobs.
When I visited last week, it was a hive of purposeful and efficient activity. The order of the day was transferring screws from bulk containers into retail-size packages, of the kind you'll pick up at the hardware barn on the weekend. The packs, adjudged full by weight, not count, were sealed and labelled and stacked in shrink-wrapped slabs ready for shipping. It's menial, repetitive work but any employer would be impressed by the workers' application.
Attainable Trust sells labour, but they manufacture stuff too: confidence, fellowship, a sense of belonging.
"They don't come here for the money," Clark explained to me earlier as we sat in his no-frills office above the warehouse floor. "It's a sense of pride and purpose - a reason for getting out of bed in the morning and feeling important. "
It's a point that Keith Shelley underlines with some vigour. The 54-year-old, whose splendid haircut is half US Marine crop, half mullet, can't even remember how long he's been at Attainable, which was incorporated in 1980. "I'm part of the furniture," is the best he can manage.
"Everybody's part of a family here," he says. "We're all close friends and we treat each other well.
"If we weren't here we'd be ... at home doing nothing. When we are here, we are all treated as equals, like normal people."
Rosine Ranby, who's hard at work on labelling, can't remember how long she's been at Attainable either. "Quite a long time," she says, and when I ask her what she enjoys about it, she frowns. Then her face lights up as she remembers: "The company!" she hoots. "They're good mates."
Attainable is paid by the Ministry of Social Development to take in around 140 people at any time, about half of whom are employees; the rest, called participants, are not, for the most part, up to the demands of employment, although some work casually or part-time.
For the participants, the place provides activities which are, says Clark, a respite for their caregivers and families. Some activities are in-house - line-dancing and basic cooking - others, like trips to the pools, involve leaving the headquarters.
"A lot of the people who come here don't feel comfortable in the community," says Clark. "And a lot of the community don't feel comfortable in their presence. So the more we taken them into the community the more comfortable both parties feel with each other."
The fact that the workers are paid much less than the minimum wage - although each case requires Labour Department approval for exemption from the law's requirements - has attracted some criticism. But it's worth reflecting that Attainable's competition in the high-volume, low-value labour market is typically offshore, in Third World countries, where working conditions are unregulated.
"If you are looking at dollars and cents, you would think, 'we can get it done cheaper in China or India'," says Clark, "and a lot of the work we used to do has gone offshore. But if businesses were to use us they would probably find that they get a much more timely job and an excellent service."
Needless to say, he's always on the lookout for the philanthropic dollar that, in his existing business model, has to match the government grant in order for the enterprise to work. The alternative, he says, is "to shut our doors and leave these people sitting at home".
As I leave, Rosine bails me up for a word. She still can't remember when she started at Attainable, but she says she knows when she is going to finish.
"I'm going to work here," she announces proudly, "until I retire."
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