Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of Bill C-81, an act to enable a barrier-free Canada. I would like to reiterate the Conservative pledge to work with all parliamentarians towards its swift passage.
On that note I thank the minister, the government, other members of the opposition, people with disabilities, businesses and public servants who have come together through this process to put forward a positive if imperfect bill.
Regardless of these imperfections, this late in a parliamentary cycle it is important that we move swiftly to get it passed. There are important improvements that will help remove the barriers faced daily by Canadians with disabilities. This bill, with all of its imperfections, deserves to be passed, and the House can count on full Conservative co-operation to ensure that it does so as quickly as possible.
Now that we acknowledge the foregone conclusion that the bill will pass, and we have commitments from members of all parties to make it happen quickly, I want to use my brief time to highlight the next steps that we must all take in order to ensure a truly barrier-free Canada, one where Canadians with disabilities can fulfill their full potential. I will focus my remarks on the issue of jobs.
We know that a job is the best anti-poverty plan that exists. That is important to this discussion, because fully 27% of people with disabilities lived in poverty as of the Canadian Survey on Disability in 2012. That number falls from 27% to 8% for people with disabilities who have jobs.
Amazingly, that same Statistics Canada survey demonstrated that the poverty rate among people with disabilities who had jobs was actually lower than the poverty rate for the general population. In fact, if we put two people side by side, one who has a disability and a job and the other who has neither a job nor a disability, we would find that the working person with a disability was significantly less likely to be living in poverty.
I use this statistic to demonstrate that it should not be considered a foregone conclusion that people with disabilities must live in want. To the contrary, their natural God-given skills, industry and perseverance allow them not only to support themselves but also to prosper. Unfortunately, there are numerous physical and governmental barriers that stand in the way.
An Employment and Social Development Canada report from some years ago said that of approximately 795,000 working-aged Canadians who are not working but whose disability does not prevent them from doing so, almost half, 340,000 of these people, have post-secondary education. Let me reiterate that. There are 800,000 people with disabilities who are not working even though their disability does not prevent them from working, and almost half of those people have university educations.
The evidence suggests that they desperately want to work and will seek out opportunities to work, but that numerous barriers stand in the way. Many of the physical barriers are addressed in this bill, but there are other governmental barriers that remain in place.
Income and other social support programs often punish people with disabilities for working. Allow me to quote an organization called Return on Disability. It is an organization that specifically invests in businesses that do a good job of hiring people with disabilities and serving customers with disabilities. I quote:
Anecdotal evidence suggests that these programs represent a barrier to employment, as individuals who risk building a career must at some point forfeit their benefits.
Let me give an example. Once a minimum wage-earning person with a disability in Alberta earns $1,150 a month, they face a clawback of their disability support assistance of almost 100%. It takes 12 full working days for someone on minimum wage to earn that amount. On the 13th day, the government starts reducing the benefit by $1 for each dollar earned. On top of that clawback, the worker pays income and payroll taxes, not to mention gas and carbon taxes to drive to the job in the first place. The combined effect of all these taxes and clawbacks leads to the outcome that someone can lose $1.25 for each extra $1 they earn. That is a negative wage. Every extra hour the person works actually makes them poorer. Ironically, the same government that was in place in Alberta, which was hiking the minimum wage, was punishing the same workers for receiving that increased wage. As the wage went up, the clawback sharpened, and the person was actually worse off.
These disincentives for work are not only discouraging but can also be scary. In Alberta, a single disabled person loses the Alberta adult health benefit program once he or she earns over $16,580. Ontario is almost as bad. People with disabilities who receive the Ontario disability support plan income support payments are penalized if they work. Simply put, for every $2 they make above $200 a month, their ODSP benefits are reduced by $1. This is on top of other clawbacks to housing, child care benefits, bus pass support and drug benefits that could support mobility devices, hearing and visual aids, medical supplies, respiratory devices, transportation allowances and so on.
These penalties have the effect of making it next to impossible for many people who are disabled and desperately want to work to do so. We call this the marginal effective tax rate, a fancy way to describe what people lose for every dollar they earn. We know from the data that it has an effect on the ability of people in these circumstances to work. According to Stats Canada, 94,000 people with disabilities say the reason they do not work is that they would “lose additional support”. Also, 84,000 do not work because they expect their income would drop if they did. These numbers come from Stats Canada surveys and include only people who used to work or who indicated that they are physically capable of doing so.
Let us unpack those numbers. Almost 100,000 Canadians who have a disability and who are physically capable of working have told Stats Canada that the reason they do not is that government programs would punish them if they did.
The solution to this, of course, is to adjust our tax and benefits system across levels of government to ensure that people always gain more from their wages than they lose to clawbacks and taxes. There are a number of ways to do this.
First, we could adopt the opportunity for workers with disabilities act, a bill I introduced early in this Parliament, which received support from members of the NDP, the Green Party and some Liberals. That bill would make it a condition of the Canada social transfer that provinces adjust their tax and benefits systems to ensure that people always keep more in wages than they lose in taxes and clawbacks.
Second, we could look at adjusting the workers benefit disability supplement and the disability tax credit, both of which have the potential to make work more financially rewarding. Jim Flaherty originally designed that benefit. It was then called the working income tax benefit. He specifically had in mind people with disabilities, because of course this was a long-standing passion of his.
The idea was to basically give the working poor, and particularly the working poor who are disabled, a pay raise on their earned income, allowing them to springboard over the welfare wall, which holds so many hard-working and promising workers back.
For the people who still cling to old stereotypes about people with disabilities, there are countless examples of those who have incredible workplace achievements and potential. There are real life stories that support this statement.
As one father of an autistic child wrote, “Charity is a good start, but it isn't a game changer....Charity wasn't what people like my son really needed; they needed jobs. Only a job could give them a place in the world.” Randy Lewis, that father, created jobs for people like his son.
As senior vice-president of Walgreens, he launched a massive hiring drive to employ about 1,000 people with disabilities at the retail giant's distribution centre. He writes in his amazing book, No Greatness without Goodness, “With a paying job...they would be part of our world—not relegated to the shadows and reliant on the charity of strangers. Work would fill their days, offer healthy challenges, and provide relationships. Work would mean independence.” That 1,000-person hiring spree turned into a massive financial success for Walgreens.
The company reported that the distribution centres, which are incredibly competitive and competing on the basis of fractions of pennies, requiring 100% accuracy on where products go through the system, were successful and profitable even through the transition period as a result of, not in spite of, the decision to hire 1,000 people with disabilities to do the important work. They earned full wages and did the same jobs as everyone else had done, in many cases doing them better.
In Canada, we have similar anecdotes.
Tim Hortons franchise owner Mark Wafer hired a young man with Down Syndrome, named Clint. He turned out to be his best and most loyal worker. He did all the same tasks as his co-workers and made the same money, with no government wage subsidy or workplace tokenism. He arrived early, left late and never stopped all day long.
This impressed his boss, who had overcome a disability himself. “I grew up 80% deaf, having to fight for my rights”, said Wafer, who owns five Tim Horton's franchises, “but I always believed that the only way to live a full life is to have a paycheque and that paycheque has to come from the private sector.”
Wafer has put his money where his mouth is, having now employed over 100 workers with disabilities, people like Clint. Furthermore, he has made it clear this was a business decision. His five franchises were among the best franchises in the entire Tim Hortons chain, beating other peer group averages on the measurements of success, including the speed to serve customers and the outright profitability of those franchises.
In fact, he often has a chuckle comparing the performance of his workers to the performance of so-called VIPs who show up on Camp Day, people like politicians and sports celebrities who work in Tim Horton's one day a year to raise money for the Tim Hortons camp. He has compared the statistics on how long it takes for customers to get served on that day to the speed with which his workers, who have disabilities, are able to serve those same customer and shows that the so-called VIPs are blown out of the water.
He has demonstrated the enormous success and potential of reaching out to people who have disabilities and hiring them in the workplace. In fact, they are not just anecdotes. Of the million Canadians with disabilities who work, 328,000 of them have severe or very severe disabilities.
We know this kind of success can be replicated. As I said earlier, at Mark Wafer's Tim Hortons branch, his turnover was only 40% a year, while the industry average was 100%. He reduced turnover by hiring people with disabilities. This was important because one staff turnover cost him $4,000. Based on 16 metrics used to measure the operations of the stores, Wafer said his business outperformed the others. He said, “I don't run a better business. I have a better workforce.”
Similarly, the two Walgreens distribution centres, where 40% of the workforce have disabilities, became the most efficient in the company's history. He said, “Once they fastened onto the work, most have laser-like focus. Not only did they work hard, they didn't want to quit.” They sorted, packaged and sent off thousands of different products worth millions of dollars to dozens of stores every week. This required speed, frugality and flawlessness. The slightest error would send products to the wrong place and empty shelves would send unsatisfied customers to the competitor.
Speaking of the management at Walgreens, he said, “We all agreed that spending extra money” was not what was needed. “No one had to say so—it just was. He went on to say, “In a business that plots the difference between success and failure by one-eighth of a penny, loss show up quickly and can be disastrous.”
He points out that his hard-nosed business-driven approach was perfectly compatible with having a workforce that included people with disabilities. In fact, many of them outperformed those who had no apparent disability at all.
In Canada, we have some great examples of new innovations. A company called Meticulon in Calgary helps people with autism become information technology consultants. They have the opportunity to earn $24 an hour doing IT work, mostly in Calgary's energy sector, but now broadening out to other fields.
Then there is the opportunity in reaching a bigger market. According to Return on Disability, over a billion people around the world have disabilities, representing a combined market of customers equal to a country nearly the size of China. There are major business opportunities for business owners who are smart enough to hire people with disabilities and serve customers with disabilities.
We need to remove some of the government obstacles that have stood in the way. Right now the biggest among them is the high levels of marginal effective tax rates that punish people, not just those with disabilities but all those who are on social assistance, for making the courageous decision of entering the workplace. In doing so, we sell people short, we deny them their opportunities and we fail to recognize their desire, which is similar to our own, to contribute to their fellow humanity.
Work is a basic human need, not just for a livelihood but for a life. There is dignity in labour, as Martin Luther King famously said. There is dignity in all labour, no matter what kind of work a person does. King famously said that if someone was a street sweeper, to then go out and sweep streets like Beethoven made music, sweep streets like Michelangelo made art, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry, sweep streets so well that when the person entered through the gates of heaven, people would cry out that there stood the great street sweeper who did his job well.
Let us take this occasion, where all of us are united in this common goal, to recognize the inherent dignity of every person, including and especially those who have overcome disabilities and difficulties, and clear the way for them to fulfill their full potentials.