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'Relic' lower wage for disabled to be repealed

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The Selinger government will repeal a law that allows an employer to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage.

Family Services and Labour Minister Jennifer Howard said the provision in the Employment Standards Code will be removed through legislation to be tabled Monday to mark the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

"It's an anachronism," Howard said Friday. "It's clearly a throwback to a time when there was a separate minimum wage for women."

Howard said 16 people currently work under the soon-to-disappear provision. They and their employers will be grandfathered under the old law. Under that law, employers had to obtain a certificate from the province to pay a disabled person less than minimum wage, which is currently $10.25 per hour.

Howard said the province stopped issuing certificates in 2009, but the change will wipe the provision from the books for good.

"We're going to take it out of the act to mostly make a statement that you can't pay somebody less for no other reason than they have a disability," Howard said. "We believe that's a relic of the past."

She added the change won't impact special employment programs for the disabled that are exempt from the Employment Standards Code.

Starting in 1965, sub-minimum wage permits were issued in an informal process developed by the Employment Standards Branch and the Department of Family Services. In 1992, in response to concerns raised by the disabled community, the province developed more formal guidelines to determine whether a sub-minimum wage permit could be issued.

The change comes more than a week after the release of the 2011 annual report by the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

Janet Forbes, spokeswoman for Barrier-Free Manitoba, said the report showed more than half (51 per cent) of all formal human rights complaints filed with the commission involved discrimination against the disabled.

Forbes said that represented the highest rate of disability-related complaints since the commission started releasing comparative data in 2001.

She said that rise is likely due to more people being aware of their rights to things such as access and equal treatment.

"I think that more people are just starting to find their voice," she said. "It's not just about physical accessibility, it's about treatment and equality and what you or I would expect."

Manitoba Human Rights Commission spokeswoman Patricia Knipe said disability complaints have been the most common not only in Manitoba but across the country for more than a decade.

Knipe said complaints to the commission from people with a mental disability have increased for four years; about 35 per cent of all disability complaints involve mental-health issues.

She added the commission doesn't track why mental-health complaints have increased, other than society is more open to discussing mental health than in the past.

Howard added the NDP plans to table new legislation in the spring to improve accessibility for the disabled throughout the province.

"A big part of accessibility is also attitude," Howard said. "That is maybe harder to get at, but probably more productive or more fruitful and a lot less costly."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 A13

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