Does Alberta’s “Minimum Wage Exemption” violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

or, for that matter, the Alberta Human Rights Act? Take your pick!

h/t to Ivan Mulkeen, and to the Edmonton Social Planning Council blog, where this post was just put up:

from the fACTivist, Winter 2009

by Cindy de Bruijn, Executive Director, Gateway Association for Community Living

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (15.1) guarantees that everyone is entitled to equal benefit of the law without discrimination based on mental or physical disability.

Yet Alberta Employment Standards Division 10, Section 67 (1) (a) states that with permission, employers can pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage. It is called the Minimum Wage Exemption, and we should be ashamed that in the year 2009 this is happening in our Province.

Policies such as the minimum wage exemption exist because of the misconception that people with developmental disabilities aren’t as productive as other workers. This fallacy provides a basis for taking advantage of people. It is believed that if a person with a developmental disability can only perform a job at 75%, then he or she should only be compensated at that level. First of all, this conveys the major assumption that just because someone has a developmental disability, they could only perform at a certain level. Furthermore, if we are being truthful, most of us can admit that our performance at work isn’t at maximum potential. We are constantly bombarded with all the distractions of technology like cell phones and Facebook, and others generally have a poor work ethic. However, we are not having our wages garnished based on assumed lacks of productivity.

When you first meet someone, the conversation usually leads to “what do you do for a living?” This is because so much of how we identify ourselves is through our work. Yet there is an entire segment of people in our society that are not being given sustainable work opportunities, simply because employers aware of this this old piece of legislation can use it to their advantage to save money.

How would you feel if you didn’t receive fair compensation for your work? What if you received no sick days or vacation time? How would you feel if you didn’t receive a raise in three years, while your friends, neighbours, and colleagues did? Wouldn’t it be degrading if you were told that you had to train for a job indefinitely?

Here are some real life Edmonton examples, because this happens more than any of us would want to admit:

Mike has been employed for 5 years at a convenience store where he gets along great with his fellow coworkers, has positive job evaluations and a perfect attendance record. His manager’s request to the government to apply the minimal wage exemption has been approved every year and as such Mike earns $1.50 per hour.

Sue works at a sheltered workshop: In a large warehouse, she and a handful of other people with developmental disabilities sit in a separate room and sort the nuts and bolts that accompany the large products that are being assembled. They get paid as a unit, meaning that Sue will typically earn $120 month – for about 80 hours per month

Support agencies will often receive employment contracts or have thrift stores where people with developmental disabilities work. They will do the work as “job training” often for many years with unfair or no compensation. The profits that are raised from these stores or other contracts goes into the bank accounts of the support agencies as general “Fundraising Dollars”, which can be spent however the organization deems best – which is never in providing minimum wage or better to the employees.

In December 2008 the unemployment rate in Alberta was 4.1%, the lowest in Canada. Think about it: Who is the Alberta Advantage for?

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5 thoughts on “Does Alberta’s “Minimum Wage Exemption” violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

  1. The economic illiteracy of this piece is painful. Essentially, the author argues either for radical skepticism about the ability of employers to assess productivity, or that productivity doesn’t matter, and that even if the work someone doesn’t produce enough to pay their salary, so that employing that person causes the firm to lose money (and if this were done on a sufficiently large scale would cause it to be unable to attract capital and go out of business). Better to have a government wage subsidy, so that the cost to the employer would approximate the worker’s productivity, even while the employee’s marginal return to effort remained high.

    However, abuses by support agencies in which they capture a larger share of the employees’ economic value than their costs (including opportunity costs) justify, as mentioned at the end, are abominable and should be stopped.

  2. Ack, I was mid-way through rewriting that first sentence when the comment was accidentally submitted. Pardon the chimera and its grammatical atrocities.

  3. If the economic theory we are referring to is Capitalism, wages are not the product of the employer’s assessment of productivity, they are set by the labour market. Worker productivity only determines the maximum limit that employers will pay, if forced to do so.

    Alberta (like many other states and Provinces) have a long history of labor exploitation of people labelled as disabled. From the 1920s until well after 1970, much of the labor required to run the Provincial Training School in Red Deer was unpaid or radically underpaid by incarcerated workers who were forced to provide labour. When these people finally left the institution, the cost of running the facility skyrocketed because they were forced to pay the market value of the labour.

    There may be some legitimate cases for paying trainees less or for fractional wages, but scrupulous controls are required to ensure that any such schemes are in the best interests of the workers and not exploiting them.

  4. I take the main point in the post to be one about the law, not about economics. There’s at least a serious question about whether the law in place in Alberta, and the practices that it justifies, violates either (or both) provincial or federal law. Prima facie, it looks like it does. Who knows?

  5. As Minister of Employment and Immigration, I am interested in discussions about the Employment Standards Code and how we can make it as effective as possible.

    Ms. de Bruijn is quite right that there are provisions in the Code to allow hiring people with disabilities at a rate of pay less than the minimum wage. There was a time when this provision allowed people with disabilities a foothold into the labour market. However, my ministry has not issued or renewed any permits in Alberta for over three years, since January 2006. This means Albertans, including those with disabilities are entitled to at least the minimum wage of $8.80 per hour. While information around the workers in this story is vague, I have shared the link with my employment standards officers. Meanwhile, I encourage these workers to approach employment standards to discuss a potential complaint.

    Information about filing a complaint can be found on the Alberta Employment and Immigration web site at http://employment.alberta.ca/cps/rde/xchg/hre/hs.xsl/1697.html or call the Employment Standards Contact Centre 1-877-427-3731.

    Hector Goudreau
    Minister of Employment and Immigration
    MLA, Dunvegan – Central Peace

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