John Hagens has heard the complaints.
Criticism has been increasing about the small manufacturing centre his organization operates that pays adults with intellectual disabilities $1.20 or less an hour.
“They might think we’re taking advantage of vulnerable people, or they call it slave labour,” says the executive director of Community Living Sarnia Lambton, which runs Wawanosh Enterprises on Lougar Avenue.
“If I have to take some criticism because of our program, that’s fine,” adds the soft-spoken Hagens.
“The fact is we need to have this option, along with all the other programs we have that offer competitive employment.
“People who think our sheltered workshop is a money-making business may complain. But it’s really a day support program that gives families relief, builds self-esteem, and provides therapy by working with the hands.”
About 70 people attend Wawanosh Enterprises, spending time filling contracts for canvass boots, gaskets sold to local plants, wooden crates and other products.
No one gets fired. No one has to go every day.
“We find things they like to do,” said Hagens. “It’s not meant as competitive work (that pays a living wage).”
He is acutely aware of the growing call across North America to shut down sheltered workshops like Wawanosh. Advocates say they are outdated models that segregate individuals with disabilities and pay them next to nothing.
Mayor Mike Bradley is among those leading the charge.
“Most people understand that sheltered workshops started in the 1960s when employment was limited for the disabled, but times have changed,” he said.
“Now when many people hear there are places in this community that pay as little as $1 an hour, there’s a lot of shock.”
Bradley isn’t advocating for a sudden shutdown of Wawanosh or any other sheltered workshop. He wants a gradual evolution in the system so all people who work will earn minimum wage or better.
“To me, it’s a human rights issue. Individuals with disabilities are no longer marginalized. We’ve moved beyond that,” said Bradley.
“In today’s world, it does not seem right. There’s no other segment of society paid a different wage.”
Hagens and Kevin Smith, who runs the other sheltered workshop in Sarnia at Goodwill Industries, say their operations are easy to defend.
About three years ago, Goodwill Industries took a hard look at the services it offers and “transitioned” its sheltered workshop into a Community Participation Program that provides stipends to disabled adults who spend their days greeting customers at Goodwill stores, helping with naturalization projects and performing other tasks.
“We make a very conscious effort to say they are participants, not workers,” said Smith. At Sarnia’s Goodwill Industries there are 27 clients in what was once called the sheltered workshop.
“These are people who want to be busy, they want to be integrated and do something meaningful,” said Smith. “There’s a real need to have a sheltered program. It’s a treasured program that makes a difference in their lives and the lives of their families.”
Smith and Hagens note the many other employment programs their organizations provide outside the sheltered workshop model. Community Living and Goodwill both employ people and pay them minimum wage or have placement programs in which disabled workers are matched with employers in the community.
“It’s not a black and white issue,” said Hagens. “We try to create choices for people. I do believe that if you’re in a competitive workforce, minimum wage or better should be paid.
“But the part that bothers me is that there are people telling families they ought to push for competitive wages in the sheltered workshops.
“There are people who need that option. Change is scary for them.”
He believes a transition away from sheltered workshops is happening naturally. Older workers at Wawanosh are retiring or dying and very few young ones are signing up.
“Change is coming,” agreed Smith. “But it’s dicey because we only want what’s best for the clients.”