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May 8, 2015

Are disabled workers being exploited?

Reuel S. Amdur

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Fifty mentally deficient workers employed on sorting waste paper were in danger of losing their jobs with Library and Archives Canada before Employment and Social Development Minister Pierre Polievre intervened to save the program, at least for the time being.

The planned closure brought a deluge of protest, leading to the reversal.  At the same time, some people reacted negatively to the rate of pay that participants receive, $1.15 an hour.

Why are these people not earning at least minimum wage?  Is this not exploitation?  The problem is that participants in the program are not capable of taking part in competitive employment.  It is a program where profit in the private sector or equivalent value for money in the public sector is not a consideration.  From a purely financial angle, this program is not a money maker in any way, shape, or form. 

The program is operated for the government by the Ottawa-Carleton Association for Persons with Developmental Disabilities.  The Association helps clients who are capable of working in the general marketplace to find jobs.  These 50 were apparently not among those ready for such a move.

So again, why not pay them at least the minimum wage?  If people this handicapped are paid the minimum wage, where is the money to come from?  Essentially, it will come from the government or will be mandated by government.  Otherwise, such programs will simply close. 

No profit-making entity is prepared to operate with workers who will constitute a substantial financial burden.  Governments may be prepared to do so, but, if such a program were more than token, we are talking a significant cost.  Are governments prepared to put that kind of money on the table?  If they are, agencies such as the Association currently involved would undoubtedly be only too happy to assist.

Don’t hold your breath expecting such generosity from governments.  One of the loudest voices protesting the $1.15 an hour pay, Randall Denley, is a former provincial Progressive Conservative candidate.  That political party was not campaigning for the expenditure on massive new social programs.  A person wandering past one of the Tory campaign meetings would not be in much danger of being carried away by a flood of the milk of human kindness emanating from the hall. 

A $1.15 an hour job strikes us as an awfully poor job.  However, it is something quite other for the disabled people engaged.  The job at Library and Archives Canada gives them a sense of accomplishment and meaning and promotes a community spirit among participants.  Set the payment level at the minimum wage and the jobs are down the drain.  The excellent kills the good.  So are those loudly calling for these disabled people to get minimum wage prepared to themselves hire people with the same degree of handicap?  Their kind of compassion is surely a spectator sport. 

Rather than chastising the Library and Archives Canada program for its miserliness, perhaps Randall Denley and his party might undertake a campaign to institute a legally required quota system for employment of the disabled.  Extra points might be awarded for employment of the most severely disabled.  In European countries, such quota systems seem generally to run between 4% and 6%, with financial penalties for failure to meet the quota.

Non-competitive employment takes various forms, such as unpaid or poorly paid internships for example.  Some of these can be seen as ways for outfits to get free or cheap labor.  The sam can be said of volunteer jobs which people take as a way to get a foot in the door.  Essentially, the question for jobs paying less than the going rate is larger than payment for work by the disabled and should be addressed. 

However, solutions for the disabled should not end up leaving them worse off.  The expedient of simply paying them at the general minimum wage will indeed leave them worse off, with no job--ever.

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