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Aspects of Lethbridge Clean Sweep program ‘reeks of exploitation’: U of L professor

A University of Lethbridge professor is raising concerns about the City of Lethbridge’s Clean Sweep Program, which he says has potential but “reeks of exploitation.” Dr. Yale Belanger teaches political science and expressed his concerns — including low pay and lack of worker protection — in a letter to Lethbridge Mayor Blaine Hyggen.

“One could argue that this program is a blatant attempt to beautify the city by exploiting individuals the City of Lethbridge and downtown merchants believe to be sullying the core. It could likewise be interpreted as the City of Lethbridge’s overt attempt to exploit the houseless by cobbling together a cheap labour force of stipendiary workers that will not be paid the minimum wage, or be offered the requisite benefits, or be guaranteed health and labour protections or labour union oversight,” his letter reads.

The Clean Sweep program was started in 2007 and recruits people experiencing homelessness and addiction to do work such as encampment cleanup, snow shoveling and downtown cleanup for minimum wage or less. It is funded by the city and run by the Downtown Business Revitalization Zone (BRZ). Sarah Amies, community director for the Downtown BRZ, said workers are paid between $10-$15 an hour, depending on what job they do on any given day. She added workers do not need ID or a fixed address, which makes it easy for them to start working.

“We do try [to] target this particular segment of the population in order to provide some meaningful activity, ability to make a little money — some folks say they get a lot of satisfaction from giving back to the community,” she said. “These are volunteer positions that are compensated on an hourly basis. Because these folks are volunteers and are not scheduled, the province finds that it is a legal volunteer program, which we can financially compensate based on the work that has been done and the financial compensation, given this kind of program, does not necessarily need to be minimum wage.”

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When asked the justification for paying below minimum wage, Tara Grindle, manager of communications and engagement for the City of Lethbridge, said paying individual workers more would take away from a finite pool of money allocated for the program and fewer people would be able to work.

“Given the way it has been set up, we are employing between 15 and 20 Clean Sweep members every day,” said Amies. “Our rate of administration and bureaucracy and that sort of thing would go through the roof… we would find ourselves being far more an employment support program than actually getting out there and getting the work done that needs to be done on a daily basis.”

Aside from pay, Belanger was also concerned the structure does not allow for a relationship between the employer and employee, which he says is vital for worker protection in case of injury on the job. “They may not receive workers compensation benefits, they may not get health benefits — they certainly aren’t going to get unemployment insurance,” he said. 

Amies said workers are trained on the job and provided with protective equipment needed for specific jobs. 

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“We do hand over hand orientation, again the population that we are working with are not the sort of people who can sit still in front of a computer for a day’s worth of training — so the training is very practical, it’s very hand over hand,” she said. “If someone has been injured in that way, and it doesn’t happen very often, but obviously the opportunity is always there — folks are taken immediately to a doctor or to the emergency room so that they do get the correct medical assistance they would need for their injury and then when they are feeling better and strong, they come back to work.”

The Clean Sweep program is involved with encampment teardowns and Belanger said this should raise some concerns about the impact on workers, who themselves are often without a home. Amies said workers are only asked to go through the camp and ask what is debris and what should be removed. 

“When we had encampments gathered and they were large and they were in specific areas, we had a couple of workers come to us and say ‘this is too triggering for me, that encampment belonged to my wife’s friends,’ or whatever and immediately when we hear that, we take that person out of the equation and give them something more comfortable to do. The last thing we want to do is further traumatize or trigger folks who are living on the edge as it is and are doing what they can to enter mainstream society again at their pace,” Amies said. “Our encampment cleanup work never ever involves Clean Sweep taking down encampments that are inhabited.”

READ MORE: Residents express concern after encampment disbursed and fences put up

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Belanger said he is not suggesting the program be thrown away, but rather revamped. He added it is frustrating to see the exploitative nature of it, when it has potential to do good. 

“I would argue that the CSP is analogous to ‘hiring’ undocumented workers and that in its current iteration, is ethically and morally problematic while furthermore appearing to violate the spirit and intent of Alberta’s labour laws. With that said, while noting that downtown merchants and several CSP participants favour the program’s continuation, and that a balance can be struck to ensure ongoing business owner satisfaction while upholding worker protections as the CSP seeks to foster their economic advancement.”

He suggests the city creates a relationship with employees to ensure protection, ensure pay is at least minimum wage and provide proper training for workers.

“I am still very firmly of the belief  that the program does need to stay somewhat the same in order to continue to appeal to the population to whom we are advertising the positions,” Amies said. “If we go to what one would call a regular employment program, then I would be hiring folks at minimum wage and dealing with all of the bureaucratic issues around what it takes to run an employment program.”

The Alberta Labour Federation said it is going to write a letter to the city advocating for higher pay for workers.

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