Article from the Toronto Star

Photo: Richard Lautens / Toronto Star

Last week it was revealed that the federal government has long been complicit in operating a sheltered workshop for people with intellectual disabilities. Despite doing a meaningful job, these workers are being paid an illegal wage only because they have a disability.

The story came to light because the federal government ended a long-standing contract for document shredding. When it was reported that the people with intellectual abilities who had been doing the work would be out of a job, the public backlash was so intense that the government reversed its decision to cancel the contracts — a move that makes matters much worse.

There are historic reasons for this and other sheltered workshops, where people with disabilities are employed for a pittance. They began because well-meaning individuals thought it was important to bring these people together to learn work skills. The goal was to ready them for real jobs in the private sector. As we now know, this didn’t happen. Some of these individuals worked at the government-enabled sheltered workshop for as long as 35 years, earning little more than a dollar per hour.

In Canada today the disability community makes up 15.4 per cent of our population. People with disabilities are by far our largest minority group and the community is growing. And yet this demographic is also among the furthest behind in the struggle for equal rights.

The case of the document-shredding sheltered workshop is not an isolated incident. Dozens if not hundreds of similar workshops exist across the country, employing people with disabilities, while paying them little if anything and pretending that what they’re offering is a work experience program. Many of these sheltered workshops bring in a lot of money; workshop managers are able to outbid private-sector businesses that are mandated to pay their employees a legal wage.

Not only are people with intellectual disabilities languishing in these shops; they are also being placed by social-service agencies into unpaid private-sector positions. How is this allowed to happen? Most often business owners believe they are doing something good for the community, the agencies don’t know how to negotiate a fair wage for these workers and the parents or caregivers of the workers are just happy they aren’t sitting at home.

From all these good motives comes an unjust and unacceptable result. People with disabilities must be given the opportunity to live their lives to their full potential. For the many who are capable of working, that begins with a meaningful job that is competitively paid.

I have hired 112 people with disabilities in the past 20 years in my six Tim Hortons locations in Toronto. Today 46 of my 225 employees have a disability, eight of whom have intellectual disabilities. All are paid the same wage and the same benefits of an employee without a disability. The expectations I have of all of my employees are the same — work to the best of your ability. The result? The workers I hired with disabilities have more often than not become my best employees.

This is what the government, and the logic underlying these sheltered workshops, fails to take into account. Inclusion of people with disabilities in meaningful and competitively paid jobs is not only the moral thing to do, it’s also good for business. It improves my profitability. It improves my employee turnover, absenteeism, safety record, innovation and productivity. The unemployment rate for the disability community is approaching 50 per cent. It’s no wonder these employees tend to be so good. The stakes are so very and unfairly high.

So why did the government not respond to this controversy by publicly announcing that all Canadians deserve to be protected by our country’s labour laws? No other demographic in Canada is expected to work for less than a legal wage. No other demographic in Canada can be systematically discriminated against without a massive uproar from society.

It’s time for the government to ensure that all workers in this country, regardless of ability, are paid a legal wage. Ottawa must begin by shutting down this disgraceful sheltered workshop and all others of its kind. The workers now employed there should be placed in the competitively paid positions they are perfectly capable of filling. Surely the federal government doesn’t need to save a few bucks on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.

Mark Wafer owns six Tim Hortons in Toronto. He is an advocate for employment for people with disabilities.

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