03 July 2017
3 min read

The unfortunate truth is that the most helpless among us are also the most vulnerable to abuse. Whether it be mistreatment of the young or old, asylum seekers or the financially desperate – how can they best be protected from harm?

A recent 4 Corners program exposed the retirement villages ripping off their resident retirees. It was yet another example of the way the vulnerable can be mistreated and even at time exploited by those meant to care for them.

Similarly, in July 2016, the ABC shocked many Australians with two disturbing news stories: the mistreatment of a South Australian aged care resident suffering from dementia, and abuse of indigenous and non-indigenous boys in a Northern Territory youth detention centre. The emotions triggered by the video footage of these abuses included outrage, but there was also guilt. It’s not just government which is judged by its treatment of the vulnerable; society is also on trial.

There is no single answer to protect the vulnerable when vulnerability comes in so many forms. The needs of asylum seekers are very different to the challenges faced by problem gamblers or by people in financial distress or living with a disability. We don’t have the solutions, but here are some things we think about when looking at the regulation and behaviour of organisations which serve the vulnerable.

Prevent vulnerability to begin with

There need to be better ways to help people avoid vulnerability in the first place. For example, we need to change the social and physical conditions so the number of children in state detention or care decreases. Vulnerability can’t be eliminated, but it can be reduced by better dealing with the physical, psychological, cultural and economic factors which contribute to it.

Footage was released of a young boy being tear-gassed, handcuffed, hooded and strapped to a mechanical restraint chair for 2 hours in a Northern Territory youth detention centre.
The ABC released footage of a young boy being tear-gassed, handcuffed, hooded and strapped to a mechanical restraint chair for two hours in a Northern Territory youth detention centre.

Regulate for the real world

Consumer protection regulation must take account of the level of actual choice that the consumer has. Often vulnerable people don’t have the information to make effective choices – or they simply have no choice. The less power a person has to choose, the greater the need for organisations (private or public) to be held accountable for ensuring that the needs of their vulnerable ‘customers’ are met.

A secret camera captures cruel treatment of an elderly man in a nursing home in Victoria.
A secret camera captured cruel treatment of an elderly man in a nursing home in Victoria.

Give vulnerable people a voice

Rules and regulations change nothing if they are not monitored and enforced. The most vulnerable people are also those who lack the power to hold others to account for mistreatment. There needs to be independent scrutiny of the operation of organisations and others serving the vulnerable. Another way to reduce this power imbalance is to provide new ways for the less powerful to voice their concerns to people who can take action on their behalf – an easily accessible industry ombudsman, for example.

Change the way business is done

Government, business and not-for-profit groups can in some cases partner to better serve the vulnerable. As an alternative to pay-day lending, Good Shepherd Microfinance provides low and no-interest loans and as well as savings incentive products to people on low incomes. Their products are offered through a network of community providers and National Australia Bank (NAB). Good Shepherd is funded by state and federal governments, NAB and donations.

Doing well by doing good

Positive cash flow and profitability are important, but companies must recognise that they will only sustain cash flow and profitability if they also sustain a positive contribution to the lives of those who consume their products and services. In many organisations this will require wide ranging changes to attitudes and practices, including to key performance indicators and remuneration practices.

At its most general what’s needed is a change from a culture of asking 'How can I better sell more products?' to a culture of asking 'How can I improve the lives of my customers?'

The answer to the second question will not only provide an effective long-term answer to the first question, but it will also better serve the interests of society’s most vulnerable.

You may also be interested in...