It’s a dirty job, but there is always someone to do it


Finding work nowadays can be challenging at best.

First there has to be a job opening. Then there is an application process, and almost always a criminal background check.

Finding work with a criminal record can be a nightmare, says one ex-convict, who requested anonymity out of respect for his wife and children, and of course in the interest of finding employment.

“Whenever you go to an employer the stigma of having a criminal record immediately disqualifies you,” he says.

But all that changed about a year ago when he heard about a work program for ex-offenders at the John Howard Society of Ottawa.


The society is a non-profit organization that helps ex-convicts readapt to society after time spent in prison. It runs a program called Rideau Social Enterprises. The program has two streams: bed-bug extermination and asbestos removal. The City of Ottawa Housing and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada fund the programs.

Not glamorous work by any means, but with most employers reluctant to hire anyone without first doing a criminal record check, someone with a devious past might welcome any job offer.

“We want our guys to have a livable wage, and we want people to be able to get a good start and to be able to live,” says Rhea Wootton, business manager for Rideau Social Enterprises.

The program helps its employees earn a better wage than they would be able to at jobs they find on their own, should they even be able to find an employer willing to take them on, says Wootton. The starting wage for workers in the asbestos abatement stream of Rideau Social Enterprises is between $13 and $15 an hour.


Rideau Social Enterprises acts much like a small business or contractor. The John Howard Society trains the employees in either stream of the business and helps with marketing and bookkeeping. The employees work in small teams and go out to complete jobs removing either asbestos or bed bugs.

The bed bug team is called the Bed Bug Busters, and they do home-preparations for individuals who have bed bug infestations and who are disabled in some way so they wouldn’t be able to prepare their unit themselves,” says Wootton.

A lot of preparation goes into getting a home ready to be sprayed for bed bugs.

“It means moving a lot of your furniture, getting everything away from the wall,” says Wootton. “For someone who’s got a physical or mental health disability, you’re asking them to do way more than they are able to. A lot of our clients are in wheelchairs or are elderly.”

The labour costs involved in hiring someone to do this type of work are expensive, says Wootton. “Our guys work with really vulnerable individuals in our communities that wouldn’t be able to that done if we didn’t exist,” she says.

“When our crews aren’t doing bed bug work we do moves for the low-income or sheltered community,” says Wootton.


The John Howard Society is serious about marketing this service. Wootton says the society has trained two of their own social workers to become certified exterminators and licensed them to be able to treat homes.

Wootton says she hopes to get more clients in Ottawa – not necessarily disabled or low-income clients — so that the John Howard Society can hire more workers. Currently the society employs four people on the bed bug crew.

The other stream of Rideau Social Enterprises, the asbestos removal stream, employs more than two-dozen.

“There is a ton of work available in Ottawa for people who are trained to do asbestos removal work,” says Wootton.

Employees in the asbestos stream of Rideau Social Enterprises get their full-ticket certification through the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities to work with asbestos. Much like in their bed bug stream of the enterprise, the John Howard Society has licensed one of its own social workers to be able to train and certify incoming workers.

“We act like a temp agency,” says Wootton. “We have about four asbestos companies and when they need labour they call us.”

Five Star Asbestos Removal, a firm that does residential and commercial asbestos removal in Ottawa, is one such company. “The problem with the asbestos removal business is there’s a lot of ebbs and flows,” says Dave Kendall, business manager for Five Star. “One week we’re extremely busy, the next we’re not.”


Kendall says the company has about a dozen permanent, full-time staff on its payroll. But when Five Star takes on short-term contract work, its advantageous to the company to hire from Rideau Social Enterprises.

“There’s quite a bit of money that goes into that training that we save,” says Kendall. Rideau Social Enterprises gives his company the ability to hire people who are already trained and certified to do the work.

But there’s also a stigma involved when hiring workers who have been offenders in the past, says Kendall. Five Star isn’t able to use any of the Rideau Social Enterprises workers on government buildings because that type of job requires security clearances that an ex-offender could never get. And clients could be wary of having ex-convicts on the worksite or in their homes.

“We don’t want to just hire anybody, we are careful with who we hire,” says Kendall. “A lot of these guys just have petty crimes, misdemeanors.

“Most of them are just looking to find a job.”