It is a common question in business, in fact, it is a marketing essential, and a strategy and planning necessity, to have an impact oriented response to the “Why’s” of your business. It is your company’s purpose, your raison d’etre, that make the wheels turn, and what spins off from those wheels in motion can be minor or can be revolutionary.
When Downlights started in 2018, it gave one young woman with Down syndrome a voice she did not previously have. The story of her struggle to find meaningful work experiences, let alone paid employment took, the world by storm- a piece on George Takei had 1.3 million views in 24 hours. The unexpected impact of her journey brought to light the plethora of social injustices experienced by disabled people in New Zealand and the “WHY” for Downlights became the guiding light and we made an unwavering commitment to ILLUMINATE the way and CARE for the greater community, to make meaningful CHANGE to workplace inclusivity norms. Downlights now employees 6 young adults that identify as being disabled and we offer students from the Pegasus Unit and MIT work experience to help them on their journey, with plans to employee more disabled young adults as we reach our market potential.
Downlights is a social enterprise that employs young adults with Down syndrome and cognitive disabilities to make luxury scented soy candles in Auckland, New Zealand. Crucial to our value system is the concept of circular economy. This led to the development of The Downlights Charitable Trust. Every Downlights candle sold donates $1NZ to trust beneficiaries: The New Zealand Down Syndrome Association, Recreate NZ and The Living Wage Movement. We have donated over $40k to our beneficiaries and will continue to do so to support their exceptional mahi.
Early stages of strategic planning revealed we needed guidance to shed light on the issues that our disabled staff experience and this needed to be viewed and articilated through the eyes of experienced and leading disabled business owners. Dr. Robbie Francis Watene from the Lucy Foundation and Grace Stratton from All is for All had a significant impact (and still do) on Downlights policies and direction.
Our decision to become a Living Wage Employer was not just a decision made to address one of the biggest barriers faced by our staff members-economic barriers- it was to act as an advocate for the disability sector at large. Along Downlights journey, we have become recognised as a role model social enterprise, and we challenge corporates to rethink their business models and DEI policies (if they even have one). As a result, Downlights became a Principal Partner for the Living Wage Movement and we are committed to creating further awareness about the significance of the Living Wage, especially for disabled New Zealander’s.
I asked Dr. R. Francis Watene what the Living Wage means to her:
“Globally, disabled people experience the highest unemployment rates, lowest levels of education, and least access to adequate healthcare than any other sector in society. In 2008, the New Zealand Government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which guarantees disabled people the right to an adequate standard of living. In Aotearoa, this right is also articulated in Outcome 2 of the New Zealand Disability Strategy 2016-2026 (employment and economic security), which states:
"We [disabled people] have security in our economic situation and can achieve our potential [...] Employers are confident and willing to employ us in meaningful jobs that utilise our strengths and make the best use of what we have to offer."
As a disabled entrepreneur, employer and employee myself, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of paying disabled people a living wage. Not only does the living wage ensure the minimum income necessary to meet our basic needs by ensuring an adequate standard of living and financial security, but it also provides a pathway forward for reversing the significant socio-economic disadvantage experienced by our community.”
Michael Hunter, Head of Department (Pegasus Unit, Pakuranga College) comments:
"Our Whanau also appreciate the fact that our students are shown the dignity of receiving a living wage for their work. Often our students feel marginalized by society and they struggle with depression and feelings of isolation due to their differences to the mainstream population. Companies such as Downlights who pay a living wage are crucial to ensure that all members of society are valued and encouraged.
After providing our families with basic human rights such as shelter, food and water then the dignity and respect of a living wage also makes our students feel as though they are provided with the equal opportunity that they deserve”
I shared a conversation with Red Nichol recently and he commented on how modern society places so much value on what someone earns. This is undoubtedly true, hence, when you are paying a group of people the MWE, what does it say about the value of disabled people’s lives: - “If employers only see value through an antiquated lens of raw productivity, they’re missing out on an incredible group of disabled people who are curious, empathetic, and strategic thinkers”
Diversity is a fact. Inclusivity is a choice. Equitable pay is a life changer.
Jennifer Del Bel
Managing Director, Downlights
Principal Partner, Living Wage Movement Aotearoa New Zealand