From exploited to supported: Phasing out Canada's lowest wage work programs

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Ontario service organization Community Living Algoma officially ended its sheltered workshop program in September.

The Sault Ste. Marie group, headed by executive director John Policicchio, began operating the program in the 1960s. 

"By the early 1990s there was somewhere close to 130 people who attended the sheltered workshop," Policicchio said.   

Under the name Soogoma Industries, program participants performed a range of jobs, including woodwork, print-shop, manufacturing and assembly, and kitchen catering.

For their work, they received a stipend of between 50 cents and $1.20 an hour.

Ten years ago, things began to change.

"In 2006 and 2007, we took a position of no new admissions because as an agency we believe that people should be supported to be active and participating citizens of their community," Policicchio said. 

And when Terri-Lynn Garrie, a woman with an intellectual disability, won her discrimination case before Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal in 2014, it became clear a more concerted focus on transitioning away from the workshop model was needed, he said.

Garrie, a resident of St. Catharines, spent 10 years working as a labourer at packaging company Janus Joan Inc. before being fired unexpectedly in 2009.

She, and up to 10 other intellectually disabled employees, were paid between $1 and $1.25 an hour for doing essentially the same work as their able-bodied co-workers.

The tribunal found in favour of Garrie, and ordered her former employer to pay her more than $186,000 in lost wages and compensation for its discriminatory actions that culminated in Garrie's termination with the company.

No Canadian court or tribunal is believed to have heard another case alleging discriminatory pay of intellectually disabled workers before Garrie's.

Policicchio said the closure of the Soogoma program, spurred by the 2014 decision, was a gradual process.

"As of May 2014, 47 people were being supported at the sheltered workshop location, 15 people were working in the high school cafeterias, seven people were working at a recycling depot, and 28 people were in various unique working situations.

"No one was receiving a competitive wage as of the time of the implementation of our plan."

About a year later, Community Living Algoma had secured 27 jobs at a competitive wage for eligible workshop participants. 

A youth employment summer initiative for high school students with developmental disabilities was also set up, and three competitive wage jobs developed from this, he said.

"We are very proud of this accomplishment in a one-year timeframe."

The youth initiative marked a significant milestone for the organization.

"No student will have to experience employment in a segregated setting -- all will have an opportunity to be introduced to employment in the community, the same as every other citizen," Policicchio said.

The initiative and Community Living Algoma's ongoing pursuit to assist participants into community jobs and volunteer roles is about more than ensuring minimum wage rates and decent workplace conditions for intellectually disabled individuals, he said.

"It is about transitioning supports from segregated and congregate settings to community participation, community engagement and community employment."

"We have people who have experienced positive changes in their lives," Policicchio said.

The organization's transition process and ongoing work in its community is also an inspiration for other agencies in Ontario.

"We have been contacted by agencies [which] want to visit us and learn from our journey.

"We consider ourselves an agency that is heading in the right direction: that is to enhance people's quality of life by ensuring they are participating and included within their community."

Michael Bach, executive vice president of the Canadian Association for Community Living, has framed the shift away from the sheltered workshop model as a "deinstitutionalizing segregated labour markets." 

"We don't set up segregated labour markets based on a racialized or gender basis [and] I don't think we should be setting up segregated labour markets based on disability."

A labour market analysis should be applied to workshop models and the transition process, he said.

Canada's labour force participation rate is about 66 per cent, according to Statistics Canada

Bach believes this participation rate should set the bar for the involvement of adults with intellectual disabilities in the wider workforce.

For those individuals that are not in that two-thirds, just like adults competing in the general labour force "a conversation about what we're going to do in those cases" discussing "what there days [are] going to look like" should occur, he said. 

"One of the jobs of our community agencies is to figure out different kinds of involvement [for intellectually disabled adults] -- whether it's going to be volunteer or whether people are going to be able to pursue other interests in their lives."


Read part one of the sheltered workshop investigation here


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. 

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