A fair chance at fair work: Reducing poverty by supporting vulnerable employees

“The link between employment and poverty is obvious. The link between disability and poverty is pervasive.”

Catherine Connelly

The issue | Inequality and exclusion drive poverty

When Catherine Connelly was in business school, her HR textbooks defined disability as “the inability to work.” It’s a misconception that’s still deeply rooted in society. But Connelly has made it her mission to show employers why it’s wrong.

The Canada Research Chair in Organizational Behaviour, Connelly studies the experiences of workers who are often overlooked in the rapidly changing economy, including people with disabilities, temporary foreign workers, and those with precarious or gig jobs.

Her work directly aligns with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 1 – to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. The Canadian government has been taking action to ensure social protection for vulnerable groups to reduce poverty, while Connelly is targeting poverty’s root causes: inequality and exclusion in the labour force.

More: Catherine Connelly’s research exemplifies McMaster’s commitment to advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities worldwide. New research from the United Nations University warns that the economic fallout from COVID-19 could reverse global progress made towards SDG 1.

“Ensuring equitable access to reasonable jobs is more vital than ever now,” says Connelly.

The research | Identifying workplace barriers

Connelly, a professor in McMaster’s DeGroote School of Business, is investigating the obstacles and injustices faced by vulnerable workers and identifying ways to overcome them.

“Individuals with disabilities don’t have the same access to job opportunities as individuals without disabilities because many employers have concerns about hiring them,” she says.

Connelly has shown that these worries are unfounded, and employers would be wise to access this underutilized labour pool. “There’s often a net savings from hiring people with disabilities because they have slightly above-average performance and low turnover,” she says.

Her ongoing examination of the Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker program has revealed abusive and unfair practices – a finding also tied to SDG 8, which includes the goal of decent work for all. By conducting more than 100 interviews with these employees, Connelly discovered widespread issues related to health and safety and working conditions. “Kickbacks to employers, inadequate accommodations and isolation are common,” she says.

The impact | Creating more inclusive, equitable workplaces

Connelly’s research has a powerful, evidence-based message for employers: Fair, inclusive organizational practices bring a significant return on investment. “Employer engagement is crucial if we’re aiming to reduce poverty for vulnerable workers,” she says.

Her research not only addresses managers’ concerns about hiring people with disabilities, but provides recommendations and resources. The Connelly Laboratory for Organizational Behaviour Research helps organizations conduct a detailed cost-benefit analysis of hiring individuals with disabilities, for example. “We’re working to change ingrained beliefs and attitudes with facts and practical support,” she says.

By shedding light on the sometimes-harsh reality of temporary foreign workers, Connelly is heightening awareness and urging reform in discriminatory labour practices.

Lessons learned | Engage with employers and employees

“Universities have the expertise, resources and responsibility to address the SDGs,” says Connelly. “As a business professor, addressing SDG 1 means finding ways to tackle poverty by removing barriers in the workplace.”

To ensure that research on disability and employment is relevant and meaningful to the primary stakeholders, she says it’s critical to partner with people with disabilities and incorporate their perspective.

Similarly, studies of foreign workers should include their firsthand experiences, while also taking a comprehensive view of all the regions and industries that use these employees.

Catherine Connelly’s research exemplifies McMaster’s commitment to advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Learn more about the best ways to align research with the UN’s SDGs.