Where are our workplaces? - Dilmurad Yusupov
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Where are our workplaces?

Illustration by Eldos Fazylbekov / “Gazeta.uz”

Disabled people are facing various forms of discrimination in the labor market of Uzbekistan. Why laws and policies to ensure them with decent job opportunities are not working? My op-ed for Gazeta.uz.

Today, December 3, is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. One of the topics of this year is devoted to the problem that underlies true social inclusion and is important not only for people with various forms of impairments, but also for all – employment. In this regard, the international community has launched the campaign “This is my workplace” (#ThisisMyWorkPlace).

The idea of ​​this international campaign is to collect and disseminate short video messages about the workplaces of disabled people from around the world to demonstrate the diversity of their professional abilities. Today, some of these videos will be shown at the UN Secretariat during the celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

If Uzbekistan participated in this campaign, most likely, we would show informal workplaces of deaf parking attendants and sellers of flags and trinkets at traffic lights, deaf women with floor scales in underground passages, singing blind beggars and wheelchair users at metro exits, as well as many former employees of training and production enterprises (TPEs) under the Societies of the disabled, Blind and Deaf who lost their jobs and are currently unemployed.

After Uzbekistan gained its independence and with the transition to market rails, the system of segregated employment of people with visual and hearing impairments at the training and production enterprises of the Society of the Blind and the Deaf collapsed. At the brush factory of the blind, where once more than 1,500 people were employed, only less than 40 workers work now, and the enterprise is on the verge of bankruptcy. Today, the TPEs of the Society of the Blind operate on average at 10% of the production capacity, while in the TPEs of the Deaf Society throughout the republic employ only 240–250 deaf and hearing-impaired people.

The main reason for the collapse of the Soviet model of employing people with sensory impairments is the inability of specialised enterprises to compete in a market economy on a par with other business entities. In this regard, there is an urgent need for the inclusion of disabled people in the open labor market.

In Uzbekistan, 346,084 disabled people of working age are officially registered. According to the UN Situation Analysis on Children and Adults with Disabilities, only about 7% of them are employed. It should be pointed out that in these figures only persons who were able to obtain official disability status through Medical Labour Expert Commissions (VTEK) are displayed, while the majority remains invisible.

UN research data show that disabled people are about 4 times less likely to find a job. Almost half of them work part-time, while only a third of non-disabled people are in part-time employment. The informal sector employs 40% of disabled people. On average, the wages of disabled in the formal sector are much lower than those of non-disabled people. The situation is even worse in the informal sector, where disabled people earn more than two times less than others without disabilities.

According to article 37 of the Constitution of Uzbekistan, everyone shall have the right to work, free choice of work, fair conditions of labour and protection against unemployment in the procedure specified by law.

But, unfortunately, as can be seen from the above data, the rights of people with various forms of impairments to decent work are violated regularly in Uzbekistan. The main barrier is a public doubt (suspicion) about the abilities of disabled people. In the minds of the majority, disability is associated with the loss of vital functions, the main of which is labor activity.

The thing is that the employer does not want to take responsibility. Misunderstanding of people with visual impairments and the idea that we are capable of nothing cause fear, which is the reason for frequent refusals. It’s not even that the employer gives a trial period, so that we can show what we are capable of, ”says Abdulaziz Salimov, a call center operator with a visual impairment, who was denied employment at many companies in Tashkent.

In many ways, this attitude is associated with the Soviet definition of disability as a partial or complete loss of employability of a citizen — the main criteria for a person’s “usefulness” in the socialist society. Subsequently, the Soviet legacy in many respects influenced the legislative definition of disability in Uzbekistan after 1991.

Label of Unemployability from VTEK

The fate of disabled people in Uzbekistan is ruled by the omnipotent commissions called VTEK (Medical Labour Expert Commissions). It is not in vain that they are called both medical and labour, because by law they have the right to determine not only the presence of physical or mental impairments, but also the suitability of a person for work. The conclusion of the medical and social examination contains medical and expert, professional and labor, as well as social and expert recommendations that can negatively affect the employment opportunities of disabled people.

The reverse side of the disability certificate. Professional and labor recommendations: “Can work in specially created conditions.” Photo by the author.

A potential employer, having seen this entry in the document on disability, will prefer to hire a person without disability instead of creating “special conditions” for the applicant with disability. In addition, this inscription may serve as a legal basis for refusing employment if VTEK renders a verdict: “The state of health impedes the performance of professional duties or threatens the health and safety of the disabled person or other persons.”

“When I was at the labor exchange, they told me as an argument that I should not work, because the state gives me a disability pension and because of this, the VTEK certificate says “It is not recommended to work, ” says unemployed Madina Bollieva with a disability category II with visual impairment, a graduate of bachelor’s and graduate programs of the National University of Uzbekistan majoring in “Uzbek Philology” and PhD of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan in Literature Studies.

The results of the UN situational analysis in Uzbekistan showed that despite the fact that VTEK should indicate the degree of loss of professional ability to work in percentage terms, in many cases, in the certificate of disability, this column is filled in as “unfit for work”, and in some cases it’s completely blank.

The VTEK unemployability label is most often received by people in the first and second disability category – approximately for nine out of ten often they write “unfit for work”. Thus, only with its “recommendation”, VTEK excludes them from the labour market, which contradicts the Article 37 of the Constitution of Uzbekistan.

Workplaces without reasonable accomodation

The VTEK wording “Can work in specially created conditions” implies a reasonable adaptation of the workplace for applicants with various forms of disability. Examples may include an adapted office chair for a person with disorders of the musculoskeletal system, adapted working hours, software and specialised equipment for workers with visual impairments, an instructor or mentor for a person with developmental disabilities, etc.

In 2012, the Ministry of Public Education introduced the services of a translator-secretary for blind teachers in secondary schools. However, in practice, even the school leaders themselves often do not know about it or find all sorts of reasons for refusing employment.

“They made a condition for me that they would only hire me if that the secretary has higher education. I tried to explain to them how I could. Which person with higher education would agree to work as a secretary? He himself will want to work as a teacher with such a level of education, ” – resents Dildora Muslimova, an English teacher with visual impairment of category I, a graduate student of the Uzbek State University of World Languages.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Uzbekistan has not yet ratified, states that the refusal to provide reasonable accommodation by the employer is a form of discrimination based on disability.

For instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 explicitly defines “reasonable job accommodations,” which includes changes to the job application process, changes to the work environment or work methods, and guarantees that workers with disability enjoy equal benefits and privileges in employment, such as access to vocational training.

Despite the fact that in Uzbekistan discrimination against disabled people is prohibited and punishable by law, the definition of “reasonable accommodation”, as well as the employer’s refusal to adapt their workplace as a form of discrimination on the basis of disability, have not yet been legislated.

Nevertheless, Section 30 of the Law on Social Protection of Disabled People and Section 220 of the Labor Code provide for the creation of the necessary working conditions, as well as the granting of such preemptive rights as full salary for part-time workers (no more than 36 hours a week), extended annual leave in order of priority, complex procedures for their dismissal, etc.

However, in practice, such labor privileges and benefits may have the opposite effect. A potential employer, having seen all these requirements for the creation of “special conditions”, may come to the conclusion that hiring a person with a disability is a rather costly business that will put a burden on the enterprise budget. After all, entrepreneurs are primarily interested in maximising profits while minimising costs, and not in employing disabled people.

“When I opened the employment and retirement books, questions arose from the accounting department. Fearing inspections, the employer said that they would not be able to hire me because, in accordance with the order of the Ministry of Health, they should completely organise the workplace for me. And that means buying a Braille display and licensed JAWS software and other benefits. We have fewer working hours compared to non-disabled people. But in fact, we don’t even need such working conditions, ” – said Abdulaziz Salimov, a second-year student at the National University of Uzbekistan with I category of visual impairment.

A common misconception is that all disabled people need reasonable accommodation and special working conditions, and that the implementation of all these requirements will result in a significant cost for the employer. However, for many disabled people this is not necessary, and many measures to adapt the workplace require little or no cost. A study by the US Department of Labor Department of Disability Employment Policy showed that 56% of employers did not spend a cent for these measures.

Non-Working Employment Quota

Section 25 of the Law “On the Social Protection of Disabled People in the Republic of Uzbekistan” requires state institutions and private enterprises with at least 20 people to book at least 3% of jobs for disabled people. Officials of organisations that do not comply with this quota and evade employing disabled people are held administratively liable.

“Many managers are not aware of the existence of the quota, which means that in practice there is no such quota at all. I turned to the employment promotion center to at least be allocated a workplace at a 3% quota, but even there they told me that this quota is allocated for street sweepers and welders, that such quotas could not be allocated for teachers. Neither the head of District Department of Public Education, nor the Tashkent city department of public education, nor the Ministry of Public Education recognise this quota … The officials themselves are very illiterate, ” says Madina Bollieva.

According to the law, officials of organisations that do not comply with this quota and evade employment of disabled people must be held administratively liable.

“There are more than 30 schools in my area, and for more than a year now I can’t find a job as a teacher of the Uzbek language and literature … Can you tell me how many people can quit their jobs or take maternity leave? I appealed to the district prosecutor’s office to bring to administrative responsibility the head of the Mirzo-Ulugbek district department of public education for his refusal to provide me with work. The most interesting thing is that the employees of the district prosecutor’s office handed over this case to the employment assistance center, which then referred the case to the Ministry of Public Education. In short, they ping-ping me from one authority to another. There is a law, but there is no implementation of it – that’s the problem, ” – Madina Bollieva despairs.

According to a resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers in 2017, hokims (mayors) of districts and cities, together with employment promotion centres (EMCs), must annually determine the need for employment for socially vulnerable groups who have difficulties in finding a job and are not able to compete in the labour market on an equal basis with others. In addition, a list of enterprises should be formed that should reserve jobs for them.

Article 220 of the Labor Code on Additional Measures for the Protection of Labour of Persons with Disabilities stipulates that the employer is obliged to employ disabled people who are sent by the local labor authority in the manner of the established minimum required number of jobs for them.

For failure to comply with the decision of the hokim to create a set number of reserved jobs, the employer is fined, which goes to the State Employment Promotion Fund. District and city central sanitary facilities should monitor the implementation of these requirements and provide generalised information. According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations for 2017, out of 15,328 jobs which were reserved for disabled people only 6,196 people were employed by quota – this is 40.4%.

However, it is not clear which state body should prosecute violators of the law — the prosecutor’s office, the hokimiyat, the employment center or the Ministry of Health? By a presidential decree of December 1, 2017, the Fund for the Support of Disabled People was created under the Ministry of Healthcare, which should also receive fines for non-compliance with the employment quota.

How to create workplaces?

By not providing decent work opportunties for disabled people, we put at higher risk of social and economic vulnerability not only them, but also our state as a whole. In 2010, the International Labor Organization calculated that in developing countries the damage to the economy from exclusion of disabled people from the labour market is 3–7% of GDP. At the same time, in some countries, social disability benefits can make up 4–5% of GDP.

We must pay particular attention to the employment of disabled women and people with multiple and complex disabilities. For example, deafblind and other people with several serious impairments of body functions can and do want to work, like everyone else.

It is necessary to revise the VTEK system of certification of professional and labor abilities and to relieve disabled people from the label of unemployability. We should not focus on disability, but on the ability of people to contribute to the development of the country, to pursue a career, the ability to provide for themselves and their family, and also to realise their full potential.

A new anti-discrimination legislation is needed (this may be a new law “On the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of the Republic of Uzbekistan”), which, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, would define the employer’s refusal to reasonably accommodate the workplace as a form of discrimination on the basis of disability.

Lack of control over the implementation of the 3% employment quota, as well as the lack of clarity about which state agency should administer the system for its non-fulfillment, entails the ineffectiveness of the system of reservation of jobs for disabled people and other categories of the population in need of social support.

To promote the employment of disabled people, it is necessary to raise public awareness of their equal rights in the workplace, like everyone else. This can be done by organising campaigns across the country, using the example of the  National Month of Disability Awareness in the United States, which is held every year in October.

The UK government has established a national accreditation scheme – Disability Confident – to support the businesses in attracting, hiring and retaining workers with disabilities. To undergo three-level accreditation, the employer must create all conditions for an inclusive work environment. In recognition of the achievements, the company receives a certificate and a badge for the site, which serve as a symbol of the company’s commitment to the principles of inclusion and thereby significantly improve its reputation as socially responsible and non-discriminatory on the basis of disability.

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