Creating a more disabled-friendly working environment

July 12, 2018 15:40
Many disabled people in Hong Kong are living in poverty as they face a lot of difficulty finding jobs and understanding employers, a report has pointed out. Photo: Reuters

According to the "Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report on Disability 2013", the poverty rate among the disabled in Hong Kong, with the effects of policy intervention already taken into account, stood at 29.5 percent, far higher than the overall rate, 14.5 percent.

By conservative estimates, the current unemployment rate among the disabled in the city stands at as much as 6.7 percent, which is almost twice the percentage of the overall jobless rate.

The report pointed out that the major reason why so many disabled people are living in poverty is that they often have a lot of difficulty finding jobs, and hence their inability to get by.

Under the current policy approach, the government would provide disabled people with vocational training and support service so as to encourage private businesses to voluntarily hire them.

Unfortunately, the harsh truth is, this policy approach has proven a complete failure when it comes to improving the standard of living of the disabled.

The “E-Connect” program under the Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service recently interviewed 337 disabled individuals over their state of employment.

Among them, 38 percent said they had been out of work for over three years.

Worse still, many of them have constantly found themselves running into a stonewall even if they were only applying for low-skilled jobs such as office assistants, shop assistants and cleaners.

As far as sheltered workshops are concerned, even though they do provide jobs for the disabled who were unable to find any work in the job market, job vacancies in these workshops are both scarce and hotly sought after, with 2814 applicants now being on the waiting list and their average waiting time more than 20 months.

And the situation is further compounded by the fact that most of these sheltered workshops don’t implement any fixed retirement age.

As a result, many of the job positions have been continuously occupied by disabled elderly workers, thereby further exacerbating the scarcity of places in these workshops.

Meanwhile, ever since the statutory minimum wage has been enforced, the government has also launched the productivity assessment mechanism for the disabled.

Under this mechanism, disabled workers can choose to undergo assessment in order to determine whether they should be entitled to the statutory minimum wage like others or be paid at a rate commensurate with their productivity.

Those who are in favor of the mechanism believe it can prevent disabled workers from losing their jobs due to their impaired abilities.

However, many disabled workers who have opted to undergo the assessment are actually worse off, because as much as 46 percent of them have ended up getting paid just 70 percent or even less of the statutory minimum wage.

In consequence, the majority of them are stilling living in poverty.

Even for disabled people who are lucky enough to have managed to land a job in private companies, their woes are far from over.

It is because as the E-Connect study has indicated, there is a prevailing notion among employers that disabled workers are often more susceptible to emotional issues.

Moreover, many disabled employees have often found themselves shunned by their co-workers because their co-workers are generally under the impression that violent and harassing behavior is common among disabled people.

Such popular misconceptions among "normal" people have led these “normal” people to distance themselves from disabled workers in the workplace. Over time, many of the disabled workers simply lose their self-esteem and quit.

To address this issue, I strongly suggest that the government enhance its supporting service for the disabled so as to foster a level-playing field for disabled job applicants.

For instance, the administration can follow the example of the civil service and require private companies to spare disabled applicants the trouble of screening and directly offer them job interviews.

Meanwhile, although the society still remains divided over whether to enforce affirmative action for the disabled in the workplace, i.e. setting mandatory employment quotas for them, the government should at least take the lead in hiring more physically and mentally challenged people and encourage its outsourcers to follow suit.

The administration should also proactively offer "one-stop" support services to employers to encourage them to give disabled applicants a shot.

For example, the government can conduct seminars on hiring disabled people, provide consultation service for employers before and after their hire of disabled employees, give briefings and training to their co-workers, supply barrier-free facilities, as well as simplifying the application procedures for a subsidized scheme.

Moreover, I advise authorities to review the positioning of sheltered workshops and consider allowing them to be operated in the form of social enterprises.

If these sheltered workshops are to be changed to be operated under social enterprises, the administration should provide the social enterprises with financial, legal, management and promotion support in the long run so as to generate synergy effects and facilitate their sustainable development.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 4

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative councilor and head of nursing and health studies in the Open University of Hong Kong