Sheltered Workshops a Blessing for Developmentally Challenged or Slave Labour?

There’s a growing controversy involving workshops that pay marginal wages and segregate people with intellectual disabilities from the rest of the community.

Louise Scott, a Colbrook manager, discusses their employee transition program.
By: Moira Welsh Investigative News reporter, Lucas Oleniuk Staff Photographer, Published on Mon Nov 02 2015

Anthony Guenter, 36, has autism. For the last seven-and-a-half years, Guenter has worked in the dishwashing room at Sodexo’s cafeteria at Loblaw headquarters in Brampton. He works from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. five days a week and earns more than minimum wage. His boss, Sean Callaghan, says Guenter is “reliable and a very positive influence on morale.”

Thousands of Ontarians with intellectual delays are working for pennies a day in warehouses, tucked away in industrial malls across the province.

Some critics say what happens in these places, known as “sheltered workshops,” amounts to slave labour.

Others, families whose adult children work there, call them a blessing.

There’s a growing controversy involving workshops that pay marginal wages and segregate people with intellectual disabilities from the rest of the community. Emotions run high on both sides of the debate.

Advocates for legitimate employment say these workshops originally set up in the early 1900s to retrain soldiers injured in war condemn people with intellectual challenges to poverty and isolation when many are capable of much more.

A Star investigation has found numerous examples of cheap labour performed by people with intellectual delays in sheltered workshops, most operated by non-profit groups. Jobs include:

  • Building wooden crates for 50 cents an hour.
  • Packaging student exam care packages for a few pennies each.
  • Assembling windshield wiper tubes for roughly a nickle a piece.
  • Pinning together Remembrance Day poppies for a penny per poppy.

Program leaders say workers can make minimum wage equivalent but only if 1,000 poppies are pinned every hour. Federal prisoners do the same work. Inmates have dedicated wages, earning between $5.25 to $6.90 an hour.

Kris McCormick has filed a human rights complaint against Community Living Sarnia-Lambton because he makes 46 cents an hour in its sheltered workshop. He’d like to earn minimum wage.

For parents like Bruce County’s Grant Monteith, the workshop is a godsend a warm, social place for his 33-year-old son Steven, who has Down Syndrome. Money is irrelevant, he said. “Steven loves his time there with his friends.”

But Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, who has for years pushed for inclusive hiring in Sarnia municipal departments, sums up the pro-employment sentiment when he says workshops are “slave labour or close to it.

“I’m not saying people are physically abused or even working in Dickensian conditions but no one is able to live up to their potential if their labour is worth so little and their lives are spent segregated from the rest of society,” Bradley said.

The notion that people with developmental challenges cannot be productive in work and life is defied by those who got real jobs.

Kelly Taylor, 42, has Down syndrome and recently retired after 20 years with London Ontario law firm Cohen Highley. It was Taylor’s job to keep the boardroom tidy, make coffee and deliver papers. She was paid competitive wages and benefits.

“She was an excellent worker,” said lawyer Joe Hoffer, who has long supported the hiring of people with intellectual delays. Two other people with developmental delays have been hired since Taylor left.

Hoffer, a partner at the firm, said he and Taylor gave a speech on employment to a local association representing families of people with Down syndrome. Later, he said parents expressed their surprise at Taylor’s success, saying they’d never considered employment for their child.

Taylor proved it could be done.

“She worked full time, she was a community volunteer, she got married and bought a condo,” Hoffer said.

“That’s a full life.”

Julian Escallon, 28, got a job at the MLSE store in the Air Canada Centre. He opens boxes of clothing and organizes them for sale in the store.

Ontario’s former Lt.-Gov. David Onley, who now advises the Ontario government on accessibility issues, shares a similar story home ownership and marriage about a man with Down syndrome who worked full time for a Tim Hortons restaurant in Scarborough.

“If he hadn’t been given that chance where would he have gone?” Onley said.

“Somebody in the system would have decided that he was not capable of working and he would have ended up in a sheltered workshop.”

For advocates like Tim Hortons franchise owner Mark Wafer, who has hired 122 people with disabilities over the last 20 years, that’s the point that burns: Ontario’s dependence on sheltered workshops blocks people from reaching their full potential.

Many people in workshops could succeed in competitive jobs, especially with supports from community organizations. Advocates say those with extreme disabilities could go to programs, like those offered by the non-profit Whitby’s Abilities Centre, which focuses on enriched programs and fitness for people with disabilities while allowing the general public to also use its facilities. The centre is not a sheltered workshop.

Ontario’s former Lieutenant Governor David Onley, Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, and Mark Wafer, a Tim Hortons franchise owner, discuss why they think sheltered workshops should be eliminated.

The Ministry of Community and Social Services, which funds developmental services, does not know how many sheltered workshops exist or how many people work in them. A survey last year of the 370 organizations that support people with developmental delays had a response rate of less than half. Of the 170 agencies that reported, there were 3,463 individuals involved in 52 “simulated work settings, including training centres, day programs, vocational training and sheltered-workshop-like programs.”

Critics say the real numbers are hidden because many workshops are disguised by new names like “co-op,” “employment training,” or “social enterprise.”

Most of the sheltered workshops are run by non-profit groups which receive money from the province.

Toronto’s Corbrook, a not-for-profit organization, straddles the old idea of the sheltered workshops and the more progressive idea of providing real training. Corbrook helps people with developmental delays get full and part-time jobs with companies like Starwood Hotels or Canlan Ice Sports. In 2014, 30 out of 255 people in employment training programs at Corbrook got paying jobs.

But it also operates a busy sheltered workshop in a strip mall on Trethewey Rd. in Toronto even though executive director Deepak Soni said it’s nothing of the kind.

The program is called Transition to Work. “It offers employment training,” Soni said.

But many of the trainees have been there for 15 years or longer.

“They don’t want to leave,” Soni said.

How is it not segregation since everyone in there has a disability?

Erik Murcia, 35, works on the assembly floor at Corbrook. He helps to assemble windshield wiper tubes for a third party contractor that provides them to Ford, Chrysler and General Motors.

People with intellectual delays interact with Corbrook’s salaried staff, he said.

The workshop is a busy place. There’s room for 60 people at a time, with a total of 110 participants in 2014. Of those, 40 per cent had been there longer than 15 years, Soni said.

Depending on the season, they fill packages of Christmas cards or student gift bags. Those workers get paid a penny or two for each piece.

The very best work their way up to the top job: assembling windshield wiper tubes for car companies like Ford, General Motors or Chrysler. They get paid a nickle or more for each piece, which amounts to $10 or $20 a day. Soni points out that one extremely focused man can make up to $60 a day.

“There are people with us who I would consider highly employable,” Soni said. “They are great candidates for employment, but they don’t want to move.”

The issue of sheltered workshops is emotionally charged.

Keenan Wellar, the founder of LiveWorkPlay in Ottawa, runs an agency which started as a sheltered workshop and now helps people with intellectual delays get paid work in the community. He would like to see more agencies like his and fewer workshops.

“There is a mix of fear, territorialism and defensiveness that clouds this issue and interferes with progressive thoughts and actions,” says Wellar.

Reproduced from