Who speaks for disabled jobseekers?

Newsroom 09/11/2009 | 15:15

“In the midst of the economic crisis, when most companies are seeking competitiveness, it is hard to associate this target with the word ‘handicap'. The two terms, competition and handicap, are not a match made in heaven,” says Stephane Meuret, general manager of HR Specialists, a recruitment company in which 30 percent of the workforce are disabled people. In Romania, just 1 out of 10 disabled but fit-for-work adults actually have a job. “This is due to cultural factors that are still related to mentalities from the old communist regime, as Romania is still in the midst of the process of socially coming of age,” says Meuret. He explains that people with disabilities are seen as “listed” and keep a low profile “precisely because the social system is deficient and does not engage these people in its mechanisms.” In Europe, by contrast, the number of disabled people in employment varies between 20 percent in Poland, to over 50 percent in countries like Germany, Austria and Belgium, Gabi Mihaela Comanescu, program coordinator at the Motivation Foundation tells BR. Statistics from the Ministry of Labor indicate that on June 30, 2009, 27,222 people with disabilities had a job in Romania. The National Development Plan for 2007-2013 shows that just 0.1 percent of the total number of employees are people with disabilities.It is not just a local problem. Most Eastern European countries do not acknowledge the status of disabled people, perhaps because of their historical past or economic difficulties. In the West, it is a totally different kettle of fish. There, the disabled enjoy the benefit of all types of facilities: workplaces, special parking spaces and restaurants are all equipped to allow the disabled to integrate. “In Romania, a disabled person has the status of being assisted, being looked after only by family and friends. The system does not really care,” says Meuret. Consequently, nor does the private sector offer proper work conditions for them, “because they do not have the culture of such needs.” Not having employees with a certain form of handicap in that company, it is assumed that special parking spaces or access platforms are not necessary either, he explains. But although commentators agree that the system is wanting, it does impose some obligations. Law nr.448/2006 stipulates that companies with at least 50 employees must hire people with disabilities, who should represent 4 percent of their total workforce. Those who do not comply must either pay a monthly tax to the state budget or acquire products and services from certified protected units. If, on the other hand, they decide to employ disabled people, they can benefit from certain facilities. First, the deduction of the sums necessary for adapting the workplace and acquiring the equipment used in the production process by their disabled employees. Second, the deduction of expenses for the transportation of these employees from home to the workplace and back. Also in this category, deduction of expenses for the transportation of the raw matter and finite products to and from the dwelling of any employees who work at home. Third, the deduction of expenses for training, professional orientation and employment of the physically challenged. While the business environment proclaims itself open to such practices, there is a large gap between theory and practice. “Most of the time the jobs offered by companies require a level of education and abilities that many disabled people do not have, for various reasons which have to do with their disabilities and the restraints in their access to education due to their condition,” says Comanescu. Another possible explanation is that their capability to perform certain tasks may be limited, depending on the type of disability they have. The Motivation Foundation has so far managed to place people with disabilities in two types of positions: jobs in multinational companies, such as call center workers, assistants and billing operators and low-qualified, low-paid jobs such as packaging operator, goods handler. But disabled people could be capable of far more than this, says Comanescu. For instance, people with learning disabilities can place flyers in envelopes, pack things, clean, do the laundry or work in a kitchen. People with sight deficiencies can be call center operators or work with clients. People with hearing-speech disabilities can be cashiers in a supermarket. The wheelchair-bound can do any job suited to their abilities and education, either at home or in a building with wheelchair access. Recruitment companies are failing to identify the opportunity to place disabled people in positions and therefore missing out on potential revenue. However, it is also true that disabled people's demand for jobs is not substantial. And this is the position of some large recruiters such as Carrefour, for instance. The French retailer currently has more than 8,700 employees in Romania, of whom only 20 have disabilities. “The demand for employment on this segment is not as high as we would like,” Ana Dumitru, HR manager, tells BR. Carrefour is now developing a pilot program which addresses people with speech and/or hearing impediments, while employing cashiers with disabilities. “Together with the Motivation Foundation, we have managed to employ six people at Carrefour Unirii. This initiative is well received both by the company's employees and customers,” says Dumitru. MOL Romania is another employer saying it does not have demand from disabled people. The company has approximately 180 staff members, none of whom have disabilities. “We do not have employees with disabilities, but we are contributing to a special fund for them. So far, we have not had any applications for employment from disabled people,” reported the company's HR department. Multinationals whose mother companies give them an organizational structure which promotes diversity are one of the main job sources for people with disabilities. SMEs, however, rarely consider employing people with disabilities. “Employers of this kind do not have the necessary resources and/or openness to make the effort and adjust their workplace and the requirements of the job to fit the restraints that people with disabilities are faced with,” says Comanescu.

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