Still a struggle for disabled to join workforce

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am

Hong Kong's disabled continue to face an uphill task in gaining public acceptance and getting assimilated into the workforce, and this more than a decade after laws were introduced against disability discrimination.

The Disability Discrimination Ordinance was enacted in 1995, but Hong Kong has made little headway since in raising public awareness of the ability and work potential of disabled people, according to Candice Lam Hou-heung, deputy chief executive of the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation.

Ms Lam said some employers, including small and medium-sized firms, were showing a willingness to hire disabled people, but the actual increase in recruitment numbers had been only marginal. There was still a stigma attached to disabled workers, and these people continued to have a hard time being accepted by their co-workers, she said.

'The public attitude is changing, but very slowly,' Ms Lam said. 'The basic problem is a general lack of confidence in disabled workers in the workplace.

'The attitude of the public as customers is also very important because it affects an employer's willingness to hire disabled staff. Disabled workers with a good education and professional qualifications have told us they have a stigma to overcome in the workplace.

'So having anti-discrimination legislation is not enough. There are still walls to break down in the community and the workplace. For genuine, long-term change in attitude across the community, there must be comprehensive public education.

'The government also needs to make a sufficient investment in social facilities and support services, such as vocational training, job coaching and placement, to help disabled people realise their potential.'

Ms Lam said the ordinance had its value in combatting disability discrimination in general, but it had not been particularly effective in dissolving barriers in the world of work.

'Many employers are unclear about the provisions in the law, and worry that once they hire disabled staff they would be liable under the legislation.

'We have met employers who worry about their right to dismiss disabled workers. To avoid any risk, many prefer not to hire disabled people in the first place. This again boils down to inadequate public education,' Ms Lam said.

According to the latest available government figures, taken from a general household survey conducted in 2000, there were 269,500 people in Hong Kong with single or multiple disabilities and suffering from restricted body movement, impaired vision, speech and hearing, mental illness and autism.

The majority, some 260,500, were aged 15 years and above and, of these, 52,000 were employed, representing 1.6 per cent of the total working population.

The largest number of employed disabled people were in the social and personal services sector (27.6 per cent), followed by wholesale, retail, import/export trade, restaurants and hotels (25 per cent), and manufacturing (14 per cent).

Elementary, non-skilled jobs accounted for the major employment category, followed by managers, administrators, professionals and associate professionals, service workers and shop sales workers, clerks and crafts-related workers.

About 60 per cent of disabled employees earned less than HK$10,000 a month.

In today's Hong Kong, disabled people with a lower to upper secondary education and engaged in mainly non-skilled jobs earned an average of HK$4,000 a month, Ms Lam said.

The better educated could earn more than HK$10,000 a month in supervisory or skilled jobs in such areas as computing and information technology.

The Employers' Federation of Hong Kong has been promoting workplace diversity for the past 15 years. The ordinance, it said, offered good protection from discrimination and other forms of unfair treatment in the workplace.

A spokeswoman said the federation did not believe that disabled people here were being unfairly treated by employers. In general, Hong Kong employers recruited people on their qualifications, the spokeswoman said, and disability was not a major concern in assigning job positions.

The federation said the government was playing a leading role in promoting workplace diversity by introducing various schemes. These included sheltered workshops and job training and orientation services for disabled workers and placement services for employers.

Simon Minty, a director at Churchill, Minty and Friend, a consultant on disability and diversity issues in the business environment, said public acceptance of diversity was progressing around the world.

Meanwhile, there was an increasing global shift from the traditional medical and charity-orientated approach to diversity towards a civil and human rights-based social model.

'This begins to happen when open-minded employers recognise disabled people as assets who bring a wealth of skills and talents, rather than seeing them as a problem,' he said.

Mr Minty expected the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing to have an effect on perceptions of disabled people in China and Hong Kong.

Ms Lam of the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation said the government should consider introducing a minimum quota for the employment of disabled employees. Such policies have been successful in Europe and other countries.

She said the society had been pressing the government on this matter for more than 30 years.

'We feel this is needed to prod employers out of their inertia,' Ms Lam said.

'It is only through education and by actually practising workplace diversity on a community-wide scale that we can show the public the benefits.'