Tuesday 13 December 2011

Dignity of work

Most of the time, I'll count work as a bad rather than as a good. We shouldn't evaluate policies on whether they make or kill jobs, except where they are specifically labour-market policies. Green policy shouldn't be judged on its job-creation propensities but rather on whether it achieves environmental objectives most efficiently.

But I'll make a slight exception for sheltered workshops. Employers finding ways to provide employment to the mentally disabled provide a sense of self-worth that's more valuable than wages paid. Where wages reflect marginal revenue product, they'll often be very low. But that's not the point. The business, whether charitable or commercial, has to at least not make losses if it is to survive. Absent strong wage subsidies, whether from government or from civil society, paid wages will have to be low where marginal product is low.

And so changes to New Zealand minimum wage legislation extending minimum wage protection to those in sheltered workshops, and lobbied for by advocates for the disabled, did harm when they, in conjunction with policy shifts at IHC, led to the closure of sheltered workshops.

Meanwhile, in Manitoba, Bill Redekop reports on the success of Mountain Industries, a sheltered workshop in the village where I went to elementary school. Manitoba sheltered workshops are allowed to pay sub-minimum wages, though there's some pressure to eliminate those provisions. I don't know whether Mountain takes advantage of sub-minimum wage provisions or whether those provisions will be eliminated. But I do hope that Mountain remains able to provide valuable opportunities for their workers.

I have an incredibly hard time seeing what public purpose is served by requiring that severely disabled workers be paid the minimum wage; an alternative policy instead providing wage subsidies for those workers achieves any reasonable equity objective sought by minimum wages but spreads the burden equitably across the community.


  1. I concur Eric. I happen to know someone (known here as Mr X)who used to be "employed" through one of the IHC workshops. He and his cohort were tasked with replacing the little foam rubber bits on headsets from Air New Zealand, among other fairly mundane and mindless tasks. I have no knowledge of the income he received for this work, but then neither does he. He barely grasps the concept of money, let alone its value in the real world, so he would be just as happy receiving $1 per hour as $1000; he wouldn't appreciate the difference. Sadly the policy espoused by these well-meaning do-gooders has resulted in the work being sent elsewhere, to the detriment of both IHC and folk like Mr X who got a real buzz out of talking about their work.

  2. I once attended an HR event where I watched a lengthy presentation about how one company decided which kinds of mentally and physically challenged workers to hire. I was informed that these individuals can’t easily find work and are willing to do the things most workers won’t do or complain about doing. They are more than willing to work nights, weekends and holidays. They often don’t marry nor have children and can devote more energy and hours to the job. Often, you can talk them out of needing expensive handicap accommodations and substitute cheap solutions for which they’ll be grateful, etc. I started to squirm when I realized the depth of experimentation and analysis that went into this project. So, you can call the “do-gooders” unreasonable, Lats, but they are trying to create some checks in a potentially exploitive situation. Mr. X may be happily willing to work 17-hour days for free until he falls over, but it doesn't mean that should happen.

  3. @Susan: Surely the individual's caregiver, or person with power of attorney, is better placed to avoid exploitative situations than are blanket rules...

  4. "Employers finding ways to provide employment to the mentally disabled provide a sense of self-worth that's more valuable than wages paid."

    Not implausible, but do you have evidence to back that up?

  5. "Mr. X may be happily willing to work 17-hour days for free until he falls over, but it doesn't mean that should happen."

    Oh dear, was that happening?

    No. It wasnt.

    How often do we see this happen? Self-important busybodies dream up some problem then inflict a poorly considered, obviously counter-productive solution to this fantasy on their poor victims under the guise of "helping" them.

    Their desperate need to feel good about themselves hurts other people.

    Its past time being polite to these people.

  6. I know of a firm which occasionally hires the mentally disabled, as well as students participating in a "head start" program offered by a local high school. The firm hires the individuals for a week or two; the students do not receive a wage.

    It is likely that the cost of training and hiring these people outweighs the gains from work done. Therefore this implies that the sense of self-worth (as well as positive community feedback) does indeed outweigh the cost of employment.

  7. I asked a good friend of mine (a well known economist) what he thought was our 'biggest problem'. He immediately replied 'middle class do-gooders'. Here we have a classic instance of this. It seems to me it's a bit like buying 'fair trade' items - it probably makes no difference and may even cause harm but it does make the purchaser feel virtuous.

  8. @Susan Kimble is quite correct. Mr X was not forced to work 17 hour days in some dingy sweatshop scenario of your imagining. He and his companions worked in IHC premises with full care and supervision, the work was performed with full disclosure to their caregivers/guardians/parents, and they received a modest income, but presumable less than the minimum wage. The question which needs to be asked is were they, the IHC, or the company which contracted out the work benefited by the change in regulations which enforced minimum adult wages be paid? Answer - no on all accounts.

  9. When I was 25 I had a friend who only worked three hours a day, I knew he was right, I was working all the time,it was silly, but not now though,I never work now,