Exploitative practices of disabled workers persist across Canada

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Photo: flickr/ Chris

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"Outdated" employment legislation permitting employers to pay disabled workers below minimum wage in Alberta is set to be reviewed, the NDP government says.

The law, which states an employer is eligible to apply for a permit from the government nullifying minimum wage standards for disabled workers, has been repealed in all other Canadian jurisdictions -- with Saskatchewan and Manitoba the most recent of the provinces to scrap equivalent legislation in 2013.

Matt Dykstra, spokesman for Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray, said the standard had not been enacted in the last 10 years.

"Since 2007, there's only been one application and that was denied.

"This is an outdated section of this legislation and we do not want to see that happening in Alberta."

While he was unable to provide a timeline for its review, Dykstra confirmed the government -- which has also pledged to raise the province's hourly minimum wage to $15 by 2018 -- wanted the relevant standard repealed.

"We are currently working on our essential services legislation, and once that is done, we'll be looking at our labour legislation, including this standard.

"It is something we're going to look at repealing," he said.

Ravi Malhotra, University of Ottawa associate professor of law and disability rights advocate, said the lack of definition around what constituted a disability in the Alberta legislation makes it particularly problematic.

The standard states that a permit can be issued if both an "employer and a prospective employee who has a disability" agree on a work arrangement.

Malhotra said the broad phrasing "appears to open the door, in theory, to anyone with a disability to be paid below the minimum wage by permit."

All workers, regardless of whether they have a disability, or how this disability affects them, should be entitled to earn a minimum wage, he said.

Alberta's current legislation not only allows for a depressed minimum wage for workers with disabilities, it also gives employers the freedom to decide whether an individual worker's disability warrants a lower pay rate.

"There may well be workers with intellectual disabilities, or disabilities, who are doing a highly skilled work," Malhotra said.

"This is a question of dignity -- under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, disability is prohibited grounds [for differential treatment], even intellectual disability," Malhotra said.

The problem extends past minimum wage legislation and is more common across Canada than many people might think. Jihan Abbas, an instructor in the Disabled Studies program at Carleton University, said workers with intellectual disabilities participating in "sheltered workshops" were also getting a raw deal.

Participants in these workshops and similar social enterprise programs provide labour and services for businesses.

The program participants are often paid well below the minimum wage, usually earning only a few dollars a day, Abbas said.

"You can still provide labour and not get paid if that labour is classified as rehabilitation or therapy or something else -- that's what happens when we have things like sheltered workshops.

"That labour is packaged as something else and then labour standards and labour laws don't apply. It happens across Canada and it happens in the U.S.," she said.

A program run by the Ottawa-Carleton Association for Persons with Developmental Disabilities at a wastepaper disposal plant at Tunney's Pasture for over 30 years was one example.

The program, which provided paper disposal services for the federal government, involved 50 disabled workers who earned $1.15 an hour before it was shut down due to funding changes last year. 

While many of the workers -- like a lot of people involved in sheltered workshop programs -- were pleased they had employment, they hourly pay rate of $1.15 was unacceptable, Abbas said.

"I've seen some people earn just a few dollars a day -- enough to buy a treat or something from the canteen. I've never seen anybody earning a competitive wage," she said of sheltered workshop participants. 

"We really have to look at the expectation of what's happening.

"It's not okay if the work of a person with an intellectual disability is being packaged as a program for their benefit when they're not making a fair wage, and a company…is contracting out to get work done that they would otherwise have to pay minimum wage."


Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: flickr/ Chris

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