Companies should employ more people with disabilities as experience shows they are as productive as their fellow employees, analysts said yesterday.
“Employers play a crucial role when it comes to inclusion of persons with disabilities. The garment industry has great potential to employ persons with disabilities,” said Jochen Weikert, programme coordinator of Promotion of Social and Environmental Standards in the Industry (PSES) project of GIZ.
“People with disabilities can work, and they can participate in society. This message should reach all – employers, families of persons with disabilities and the persons with disabilities themselves.”
The suggestion came at a discussion -- contributing to inclusive economic growth in the textile sector for sustainable development -- at Radisson Hotel in Dhaka.
German international development agency GIZ organised the discussion in association with the Centre for Disability in Development (CDD) and The Daily Star.
There are 15 to 20 million people with disabilities in Bangladesh, the number being more than 10 percent of the population, according to CDD Executive Director AHM Noman Khan.
“Fifteen years ago, people with disabilities were missing from all development intervention, turning them into a burden on the society. The situation has changed and their existence is now recognised.”
Khan said the government is politically willing to work for the persons with disabilities. “This is the most important strength. Now the private sector will have to employ these people who can contribute like any other person.”
The government passed the Persons with Disabilities Rights and Protection Act in 2013, laying the foundation for more rights for the persons with disabilities.
Weikert said the government of Bangladesh has created the legal foundation for the inclusion of people with disabilities. Now all parts of the Bangladesh society are requested to put this law into practice, he added.
He said many factory owners and managers already employ people with disabilities. “But much more is possible.”
The German and Bangladesh governments are jointly running the PSES project. Sharing his experience, Moshiul Azam Shajal, managing director of Posmi Sweaters Ltd, said his company has been working with people with disabilities for a long time now.
“The productivity of these people is on a par with the other workers. They are really loyal and good. They should get equal opportunities. When they get the opportunity, they can show that they are fantastic.”
Imran Islam Chowdhury, managing director of Vintage Denim Ltd, said they started with nine persons with disabilities about nine years ago.
“We faced problems from the management and the workers' side initially. Now they have no problem.”
Vintage Denim employs more than 140 persons with disabilities and plans to raise it to 400 soon.
Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, called for using the phrase “differently abled” to refer to people with disabilities.
“They may be brighter than us. Then who are we to call them disabled?” he said, referring to British physicist Stephen Hawking and former US president Franklin D Roosevelt, both of whom struggled with serious illness throughout their career.
If people with disabilities are referred to as 'differently abled', then a whole new world will open for them, he said. “So, what is needed is a change in mindset.” It would be foolish to exclude the differently abled in the efforts of nation building, he added.
Anam said 20 million people are differently abled and this is a huge number. “We need to care for them and use them in our development activities.”
Thomas Prinz, ambassador of Germany to Bangladesh, backed Anam and also called for skills development of the differently abled, so they can contribute to the economic development.
ABM Khorshed Alam, chief executive officer of the National Skill Development Council, said the government is firmly committed to including all segments of the society.
“We need to carry out a study to find the types of jobs that cater to the requirements of the factories.”
Md Siddiqur Rahman, president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, agreed that the inclusion of the persons with disabilities in the workforce is important for sustainable economic growth.
The entrepreneur said it has been found that the people with disabilities are productive and loyal to their owners.
Miran Ali, managing director of Misami Garments Ltd, said international buyers could be brought on board to include more persons with disabilities in the workforce.
Kishore Kumar Singh, senior skills development specialist at the International Labour Organisation in Bangladesh, said awareness has to be created and translated into action to change the mindset.
He said many factory owners are willing to employ people with disabilities, but they do not know how.
Humayun Kabir, head of human resources of Vintage Denim and also a person with disability, said if workers are taken care of when they first join, a lot of problems can be overcome easily.
Shafiq-ul Islam, executive director of the Centre for Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP), said social support is crucial in absorbing the persons with disabilities in the workforce.
The CRP regularly organises training programmes for these people in the areas of garments and animal husbandry, in an environment where the participants can interact with potential employers before they join any work.
Shamoli Akhter shared her experience of being a disabled person. She was born with deformity in one of her legs and had to quit education after passing SSC as, she said, both students and teachers used to look at her differently.
She attended a four-month course at the CRP and now works as a quality inspector at Naz Bangladesh, a woven garment maker. “I am fine now. The factory allows me to enter and leave early and I also get an opportunity to leave first if any accident occurs.”
Although her husband left her and her one-and-a-half-year-old son because of her condition, Shamoli said she does not feel beaten.
The CDD is now working with 175 garment factories where more than 1,460 persons with disabilities are employed. Shahedul Anam Khan, associate editor of The Daily Star, Sarwat Ahmad, senior adviser to the PSES, and Nazmul Bari, a director of the CDD, also spoke.