The business that hires disabled workers and pays minimum wage

Jessica Satherley
The business that hires disabled workers and pays minimum wage

No CVs necessary, no job interviews required, minimum wage provided and free cookies on the side. 

 The Cookie Project is a social enterprise that hires workers with disabilities and, unlike many employers who hire people with disabilities, pays staff minimum wage. 

“We recruit for passion and attitude, not qualifications.  A lot of these people have been bullied or haven’t gotten a job previously because they’ve announced their disability,” says Eric Chuah, the founder of The Cookie Project. 

The Cookie Project pays their 20 disabled employees minimum wage of $17.70 per hour, which is not common in New Zealand and is not a legal requirement.  

One in four Kiwis identify as having a disability but only 22% of disabled people are employed, a statistic that inspired Chuah to create the social enterprise and pay a fair wage.  

Chuah hires people with disabilities, such as blind bakers and other staff living with epilepsy, ADHD, and in-utero and prenatal alcohol exposure, to hand-make the butter cookies.  45% of retail sales go directly to paying their wages. 

New Zealanders who are living with a disability are eligible for the disability allowance from the government, but many are working for very low wages to top up their income. 

“Many of them are on extremely low wages – 70% receive under $5 per hour for their work,” said Minister for Disability Issues Carmen Sepuloni. 

“Most people with a minimum wage exemption are also receiving a benefit.  As benefits are income tested and abated, the rate of benefit they receive will vary depending on the wage rate paid and hours they work,” Sepuloni said. 

“The policy is discriminatory towards disabled people and a commitment was made to review it as part of the 2014-2018 Disability Action Plan in April.  

“Officials are currently analysing the submissions received,” she said. 

Chuah says all Cookie Project bakers are currently on casual employment contracts and “99% of our bakers actually want more hours so that they do not have to rely on Government benefits”. 

Chuah, who comes from a banking background, said: “We haven’t registered as a charity and we don’t accept donations because we want to teach self-achievement to our staff. 

“For many of our disabled employees, this is the first time they’ve been treated like adults, given responsibility and paid fairly for it. 

"We don’t want to teach them that money falls from the sky, they work and are rewarded for that,” he said. 

Chuah co-founded the business in 2017 with Graeme Haddon, who has been looking after disabled youth for over 15 years.   

For production, they then partnered with Lisa King, the founder of Eat My Lunch and 2016 winner of Westpac’s Women of Influence Business Enterprise Award. The organisation bakes out of her kitchen. 

“We are currently training some of our employees to be baristas and they will then work for Eat My Lunch,” Chuah said. 

Chuah, who migrated to New Zealand from Malaysia and used to work in migrant banking, has self-funded the business 100% so far, but he expects to make a profit within the next few months. 

The cookies are about to be sold in New World stores and the company’s newest creation to be released soon is the edible cookie cup. 

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