Defending Subminimum Wage is Defending Dehumanisation

Astoundingly, many people in the United States are not aware that there are some important exceptions to the Federal minimum wage, according to which people can be paid less than the alleged minimum. Sometimes far less. Those exceptions include certain types of contract workers (like coders in Silicon Valley) and food service personnel, who may earn what is known as a ‘wait wage’ amounting to three dollars or even less per hour. And these exceptions are abusive and disgusting, supported and enjoyed by employers across the United States who like to claim they’re necessary for business when, of course, they really just create more opportunities for profiteering.

There’s another type of subminimum wage that’s particularly chilling, though, and disturbingly, even people who are aware of the wait wage and other exceptions often don’t know about it. It’s the special exception for certain types of disabled employees, who can be paid on the basis of ‘productivity’ which is determined by comparing their performance to that of a hypothetical nondisabled employee, thus effectively measuring worth in comparison.

This is how you end up with a situation like Goodwill ’employees’ earning $0.22 per hour for their work. The subminimum wage is commonly used in sheltered workshop environments, where people don’t actually learn real-world job skills. Evidence strongly suggests that supported employment (working in the community with assistance from an aide to develop job skills) with fair wages helps disabled people achieve independence, while sheltered workshops tend to enforce dependence on other people. They also, however, provide a source of cheap labour under the guise of charitable works, which is why companies like Goodwill so adore this model.

More than that, though, contract employers may offer sheltered workshop-style employment to disabled people that amounts to little more than slavery. This was really starkly seen with the Henry’s Turkey Service case, which is the one I keep bringing up in discussions about subminimum wage because it’s so disgusting. A group of disabled men were housed in deplorable and unsafe conditions to work seven days a week on a meatpacking line for pennies every hour, while the contract company that sent them out pocketed big profits from the meatpacking firm.

Even once the case was exposed, it took substantial litigation to get any kind of compensation for the men who had been abused in the name of free market capitalism, and the award was later adjusted downwards. A stark commentary both on the types of abuses people seem to think are acceptable when it comes to the disability community, and on the value of disabled lives. Across the US, disabled men and women labour in dangerous, unhealthy conditions for far less than minimum wage, and we’re often told that this is ‘charitable,’ that they ‘aren’t good for other work,’ that disabled people ‘wouldn’t be able to find employment’ if all of us were entitled to full minimum wage, period, no exceptions.

With an unemployment rate already double that of the nondisabled community, lack of employment in the disability community is definitely a concern, but subminimum wage is not the solution. It’s bad on its face, because it encourages people to dehumanise disabled people, considering us little more than automatons to be measured against each other and a fictional ideal; despite the fact that all workers possess different skill sets, productivity levels, and abilities. I’m a ‘burst worker,’ for example, completing large amounts of work in short periods and taking long rests between. Depending on when you see me, I’m either intimidatingly productive or completely lazy.

Any time you start getting into a situation where you divide people by disability status and use it to literally value them, you’re suggesting that some people are worth more than others, are better than others. If you say that disabled workers are worth less, you’re effectively saying they are not full human beings, and are not deserving of full human treatment. This is certainly not charitable, nor is it ethical; it’s ableism, and it’s also rank capitalism. Those who can’t smell the stench of exploitation on it have evidently become inured to the odor of abuse.

Furthermore, many defenses of the subminimum wage break down when actually examined. In truth, adjusting minimum wages doesn’t drive employment down, and the problems facing disabled employees aren’t focused on how much money employers need to pay them. Discrimination on the basis of ability status is a far bigger issue; and if people are genuinely concerned about the employment rate in the disability community, they might want to consider addressing this. Certainly numerous disability advocates would welcome an opportunity to talk about how to make workplaces more accessible and how to eliminate ableism from hiring decisions and workplace practices.

And what about the idea that this is ‘charity’? Is this not one of the more patronising statements you’ve heard in a while? One almost imagines generous employers patting the heads of their disabled workers (or putting them in the annual report grinning on the production line) and talking about how socially responsible they are. However, the fact is that most companies relying on subminimum wage exemptions for their disabled employees function like every other corporation: which is to say that the administrators and higher-ups make a lot of money. Much, much more money than their employees do, and more than they could reasonably be expected to need even in an area with a high cost of living.

When a CEO is making more than half a million dollars annually (or even $100,000 annually), I have a hard time believing that the company’s decision to undervalue disabled workers is charitable or necessary to remain in business. To me, it seems much more like dehumanisation and exploitation, with disabled people being used as a source of cheap, disposable labour.