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Subminimum on the Prairies

Minimum wage for workers with disabilities an ongoing struggle

by Sheldon Birnie

Photo from
Photo from

WINNIPEG—Provisions to the labour code that allow employers to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage have somehow persisted until 2013 in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and are finally to be removed. But they’re still on the books in Alberta.

“This is basically discriminatory,” Ravi Malhotra, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who has been outspoken on the subject of disability rights for years, told The Dominion. He and other disability rights advocates argue that the provisions are not only in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. “Canada ratified the international convention. Internationally, it just looks really bad.”

In Manitoba, the NDP government recently voted to repeal an antiquated provision of the Employment Standards Code that allowed employers to receive permits from the province to pay disabled workers less than the provincial minimum wage of $10.25 per hour. 

Despite the changes, Manitoba has allowed the 16 permits that currently exist to remain in place by grandfathering them under the new, updated legislation.

“The remaining individuals covered by permits are working for a variety of companies including retail stores, restaurants, a hotel, light industry, a hospital, a couple of school divisions and a food processing company,” explained Dave Martin, Senior Advisor on Disabilities Issues for the Manitoba government, in an email to The Dominion.

Based on a survey of the existing cases, we learned it would be very stressful on the individuals if they suddenly lost their jobs because the law was changed,” Martin explained. He also noted that the employers benefiting from the permit system said they were “not in a financial position to continue the employment, if they have to pay minimum wage.”

Diane Driedger, provincial co-ordinator with the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities (MLPD), told The Dominion that the MLPD was happy with the changes in legislation However, she admitted that the MLPD had not yet come to a position on the grandfathered permits.

“We’ve been discussing that issue,” said Driedger. “We understand [the government’s] concern, but also there’s the principal of the thing. No one should be paid less than minimum wage.”

Similar outdated provisions exist in Saskatchewan and Alberta’s labour codes, providing employers with the ability to benefit economically by employing disabled workers for substandard wages, though currently no such permits are outstanding in either province.

“The purpose of that section [16] is to allow [disabled persons] to feel like they are a contributing part of society and hold a job,” Juanita Wendler, a representative from Saskatchewan's Labour Standards Division, told The Dominion.

Malhotra believes that while these provisions may have been created years ago to accommodate persons with intellectual disabilities who did indeed wish to “contribute to society,” the idea is an outdated one, at best.

“I think it’s presumptuous to say that getting paid less than minimum wage is better than getting paid nothing,” said Malhotra. “I think that’s a view that’s not consistent with modern society.”

The provisions that allow for disabled workers to be paid less than minimum wage in Saskatchewan are to be removed this year as part of the wide-sweeping omnibus labour bill of the current conservative Saskatchewan Party majority government. While this is seen as a positive step towards eliminating discrimination, labour leaders in Saskatchewan are critical of many other impending reforms to the Saskatchewan Labour Standards Act, particularly changes to rules about strikes and lockouts.

In Alberta, many organizations have been calling for the removal of the similar discriminatory legislation that exists there.

“There are no permits currently in place in Alberta that would allow an employer to do this. This provision of the Code is generally considered to be outdated, and it will be included as part of the next Employment Standards Code legislation review,” Jay Fisher, Public Affairs Officer with Alberta Human Services, wrote in an email to The Dominion.

“It’s difficult for something like this to get on the radar,” said Malhotra, who penned op-eds about the labour code provisions in the Winnipeg Free Press in 2011 and the Edmonton Journal in February 2013. “It took decades [for disability rights organizations] to get it changed in the two provinces where it is getting changed.”

Sheldon Birnie is a writer and editor who lives in Winnipeg, MB. He also plays in a country band most weekends.

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Topics: Labour
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