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Workers with disabilities not worth less

Time for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to repeal laws making it OK to pay workers less than minimum wage

By Todd Humber

If you’re released from prison in Calgary, don’t forget to ask for your horse, gun and bullets so you can ride safely out of town. When you’re in British Columbia, and you stumble upon a sasquatch, remember — you’re not allowed to kill it. And if you’re in Oshawa, Ont., and thinking about climbing a tree, you’d better have $250 handy to fork over in fines.

Canada is full of quirky laws that are, or once were, on the books. But there are sections in current employment standards legislation in three provinces — I’m looking at you Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — that need to be repealed immediately.

All three of those provinces have language that says it’s OK to pay a worker with a disability less than minimum wage. There’s nothing quirky or silly about those laws. Ravi Malhotra, an associate law professor at the University of Ottawa, put the spotlight on this practice in a recent column in the Winnipeg Free Press.

It’s stunning to read this kind of language enshrined in Canadian legislation. Manitoba’s law states that “if the director is satisfied that a proposed arrangement between an employer and an employee who has a mental or physical disability is satisfactory for both of them,” then a permit can be issued.

In Alberta, the language is similar and states an “employee who has a disability” can be paid a lower wage. Ditto for Saskatchewan, which states “any person who is handicapped” can be paid below the minimum wage.

The fact all parties have to agree to this practice — an apparent attempt to justify it — doesn’t dull the message lurking between the words: Workers with a disability, mental or physical, are worth less in the workplace.

And not just worth less — but worth less than the absolute minimum to which everyone else is entitled. I can’t imagine a bigger slap in the face than to be told your value to the company is worth less than the absolute minimum we have to pay you. Many workers with disabilities already struggle with self-esteem issues. Desperate to find work, some would — begrudgingly — agree to accept less than minimum wage.

The fact only a handful of companies have done this — in Manitoba, there have been 15 permits issued since 2006, according to Malhotra — is a credit to employers. But one permit is too many. There is no scenario where paying a worker with a disability less than minimum wage is acceptable.

A law on the books that says you can’t kill a mythological creature in B.C. is funny. Laws that say, in Canada’s Prairie provinces, an employer can opt-out of paying the minimum wage if a worker with a disability agrees? That’s tragic.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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