Workers with disabilities: a strength for Jordan’s labour market

13 Feb 2013

13 February 2013

Zarqa  – Haya Samara’s typical day starts at 4.30 a.m. The 23-year-old Jordanian from the country’s northern city of Zarqa, gets dressed, eats breakfast and then goes to gather her things for work. She later hurries to board the 5.45 bus at one of the stops the company she works for has set up nearby her home.

Samara then works for eight hours as a helper in the stitching line in the Hi-Tech company — a garment factory in Ad Dulayl industrial park, some 45 kilometres northeast of the capital Amman — sorting some of the mass-produced clothes the firm churns out daily.

Though her intense schedule is shared by hundreds of thousands in Jordan, there is something most of the country’s workers don’t share with Samara: her disability.

Born with one leg shorter than the other, Samara’s four-centimetre leg length discrepancy has left her with a life-long limp and severe pain. Though Samara wears a heel lift to even out the length, she still unconsciously tries to compensate for the difference by standing on the toes of the short leg. When walking, she is forced to step down on one side and thrust upwards on the other side, which leads to an unnatural up-and-down motion.

Her disability could lead to other serious orthopaedic problems, such as arthritis, in addition to the fact that standing on one’s toes can create a contracture at the ankle, which may require surgical repair later on.

This is why her doctor forbade her to work on a sewing machine, as the continuous and strenuous movement could further damage her limbs.

“The doctor says I shouldn’t force my leg when working, so I stopped using the sewing machine,” Samara says. “My leg sometimes hurts very badly and I need to take pain killers. Working here is fine, as, for instance, I work on the ground floor so I don’t need to take the stairs, but certain things can be still improved. Sometimes it is very cold here.”

But Samara says she is happy because at least she has a job, which helps her family make ends meet and means she can buy a car one day.

“I earn JD210 a month and give it all to my family. There is not much money at home,” she says. “I live with my dad, mum, brother and sister. I started working here two years ago. Before I was at school until I completed the tenth grade.”

Now she is waiting for a possible surgery funded by the Royal Court to shorten her longer leg.

“It is a decision that is going to be taken in the next few months. I really hope this works out. I look forward to walking with the other girls, as not many were willing to walk with me because I am slower and don’t look graceful.”

But Samara’s case is not rare in the Kingdom where, according to a 2015 report conducted by the Higher Council for the Affairs of People with Disabilities in cooperation with Jordan’s Department of Statistics, the disability rate in the over nine-million-inhabitant country is 13 per cent. Cases include those with physical, hearing, mental, vision and cerebral palsy disabilities.

Figures also show that about ten per cent of the people with disabilities above 15 are unemployed, though actively looking for jobs, while those working make up some eight per cent, with male workers with disabilities accounting for over three-quarters of that total.

Article 13 of the Jordanian Labour Law, which echoes the Law of Rights for Disabled People, states that “public and private sector institutions and companies employing not less than 25 workers and not more than 50 are obliged to employ one person with disability. If the number of workers in any of these establishments exceeds 50, disabled workers should account for no less than four per cent of the workforce.”

But the report said the employment of people with disabilities in Jordan’s public and private sector only rose to one per cent in 2015, up from 0.5 per cent five years earlier.

“Most of our 250 affiliates are well-educated individuals with PhDs, master and bachelor degrees, while the others have honed their skills via vocational training” says Hamza Hindi, president of Club Kinetic the Future of Disability, a federation that offers sport and recreational activities such as basketball, table tennis, weightlifting and athletics to its members.

The club won Jordan’s first Olympic medal at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games.

“The problem is that when they apply for a job, companies would still hire non-disabled people and forget about them,” says the 45-year-old polio survivor, who used to wear his country’s jersey in international wheelchair basketball tournaments. “This is also due to the fact that most buildings are not equipped with ramps or elevators and present barriers to people with disabilities.”

“We hope through joint work between national stakeholders and international organisations to open up programmes where people with disabilities can come together and be productive,” he says.

Data from Jordan’s Ministry of Labour show that some 1,400 people with disabilities were working in 2015 in the private sector and that some 4,500 vacant jobs were also there to be filled.

But this is still not enough.

Following the lack of integration for workers with disabilities in the country’s job market, the Ministry of Labour has been partnered with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) since 2012 to develop its capacity to promote employment of persons with disabilities.

Aead Aladawi pushes a cart inside the Hi-Tech company garment factory in Ad Dulayl industrial park, some 45 kilometres from Jordan’s capital Amman, January 13, 2016. The 22-year-old lives with dwarfism and has been working in the factory for four months. © Better Work Jordan/Photo by Ala’a al Sukhni

One of the activities started in 2015, aims to prepare guidelines for employers, job seekers with disabilities, and the Ministry’s staff to provide basic knowledge and clarify the roles played by each actor.

Also, Better Work Jordan —a joint project of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation, providing assessment, advisory, and training services to exporting garment factories —is set to share its expertise to improve the working conditions of employees with disabilities inside its affiliated companies.

Falling under the Decent Work Country Programme set up by the ILO and running through next year, the United Nations agency eyes the expansion of decent work opportunities for employees through the promotion of better working conditions, non-discrimination and equal rights at work, while also extending a minimum level of social security to the most vulnerable and enhancing employment opportunities.

Better Work Jordan’s 2015 Compliance Synthesis Report on the local garment industry noted that despite “legal requirements for the employment of disabled workers being quite stringent in Jordan and all factories citing employed disabled workers, they nonetheless failed to meet the legal standard.”

But in the agency’s partner company, Hi-Tech, things seem to be on the right track.

Just like Haya Samara, other workers with disabilities said they found a career and social respect.

Manal Alharhashi, a 38-year-old woman who is deaf and mute since her birth started working here seven years ago. After completing secondary school, she went on to learn how to use sewing machines and, shortly after, managed to become an operator.

“The strength I have comes partially from my mother,” Alharhashi says using sign language. “She has always supported me and it was also her idea to send me to a normal school instead of a special one. I was small, only six years old, and didn’t know anything, but it was a good lesson for my life to take my courage with both hands.”

One floor below, Habes Khaldia oversees the work of over 200 employees in the company’s finishing and packing unit. The 31-year-old from the outskirts of Mafraq says he started his job here nine years ago.

“I began as a helper, then became a leader and, eventually, a supervisor,” he says. “At the same time, due to the factory’s multicultural environment, as most of the employees come from South and South-East Asia, I also managed to learn Indian and Bengali and now I can communicate with all of them in their native language.”

Khaldia’s disability started five years ago. He came down with a high fever that lasted for several days and wasn’t responding to medication. When he sought treatment at the hospital, he was given a shot that badly affected his nerves. He’s still not sure what caused the fever or what the shot contained, but the experience left him with significantly restricted movement in his legs that still persists today.

“This company gave me a chance to work despite my disability,” Khaldia says. “One needs to be strong, face the difficulty, fight and go ahead. People with disabilities should defeat their worries and be courageous and step up in the working market.”

A few paces away, Aead Aladawi from Zarqa, also stops for a few minutes to recount his story. As a young man with dwarfism, the 22-year-old pushes a cart taller than he stands loaded with clothes from one factory sector to the next every day.

“I am new to the company. I arrived four months ago,” he says. “There is work in Jordan for everyone, regardless of whether one is affected by disabilities or not. If one works with diligence and is respectful towards the company he or she works for, the company will help and be respectful in return. Everyone loves me here, from my Jordanian and foreign colleagues up to the head of the department.”

But access to the job market is not the only problem that people with disabilities have to face in the country since almost half of those who are of working age have not completed secondary education.

Nasser Al Khawaja, a paraplegic light-athletics international coach who now trains Jordan’s veterans, athletes with disabilities and civilians, says schools also represent an insuperable physical barrier.

“Every building should have a ramp, I am fighting to achieve that goal,” says the 40-year-old bulk-up trainer sporting his team cap with a rounded crown and a stiff peak protruding in front.

“We should also provide people with disabilities with appropriate IT vocational training, especially in data entry. People with disabilities who do not want to go to universities should be gathered to attend these courses and hired after the training by airports, government, police and ministry offices, just like I saw in the UAE.”

Hindi, the president of the Club Kinetic the Future of Disability, says that what people with disabilities in Jordan are asking is simply “Nothing for us without us,” meaning that their participation in reforms and decisional processes is fundamental.

He is also set to find a formula through awareness-raising campaigns and NGOs to push the government implement the four per cent law of employment and remind “non-disabled people” that everyone sometimes requires special assistance.

“Even people without disabilities might sometimes find themselves in situations in which they need help, like when they have a flat tire and lack the jack. We need to win the battle against the widely-spread social stigma that people with disabilities are incapable of doing anything.”

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