Prejudice haunts disabled workers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 April, 2012, 12:00am


There was a time when society at large believed that disabled people should stay at home, for their convenience and safety as well as to keep them from troubling others. The 'out of sight, out of mind' thinking created isolation, unemployment, poverty and discrimination. Hong Kong, along with the rest of the developed world, has thankfully moved on from such narrow-mindedness, enacting laws to ensure equal treatment. But what governments would like and what actually happens can be poles apart. This was revealed in a survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong showing that, since the introduction of a minimum wage last May, more than one in five with disabilities have lost their jobs.

Such a situation was foreshadowed during debate on the minimum wage, with groups representing the disabled worrying that forcing employers to pay them the same as for the rest of the workforce would aggravate discrimination. The government allowed concessions and set up a system under which assessments could be carried out to determine workers' capabilities at new jobs, which could be paid at different levels from the minimum HK$28 an hour. Research by CUHK's social work department shows that the effort has failed, with 22 per cent having since been sacked.

That was not the case for the three other groups studied between 2009 and last year - social welfare recipients, new migrants and families earning less than HK$5,000 a month. Their employment rate remained relatively static. Additionally, the number of new jobs for those with mental and physical problems fell by about 20 per cent. While the study highlighted the work challenges of the disabled, it also shone a light on an equally serious problem: prejudice. Authorities outlawed discrimination based on disability in 1995. Attitudes and perceptions are slowly changing for the better, but the disproportionate number of disabled people who are jobless or being treated unfairly by bosses shows that there is much more to do.