The private sector must do more to support the government and include South Africans with disabilities in the workforce. This will benefit both the individuals and businesses, but also the economy at large.
This was the overarching message during the multi-stakeholder gathering held at LESCO Manufacturing ahead of the International Day of People with Disabilities, 3 December 2020. Founded in 1999, this producer of electrical products only employs traditionally unemployable workers such as people with disabilities and unskilled individuals.
While the country has made some strides on the diversity and inclusion front, a lot of progress still needs to be made. People with disabilities continue to be disproportionately affected by a lack of job opportunities and unemployment.
The National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) estimates that over two-thirds (68 percent) of adults with disabilities in this country were not working last year. The unemployment rate among people with a disability will likely also be higher this year with the economic impact of the national lockdown, which resulted in over 2.2 million job losses.
Workers with disabilities add value
“People with disabilities are at the bottom of the food chain and have always struggled to find employment, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. They will, unfortunately, struggle even more now,” says Jonathan Shapiro, CEO of LESCO Manufacturing.
“Just because someone is in a wheelchair, for example, doesn’t mean he or she can’t add value to a business or the economy,” Shapiro stresses. “It is time the private sector comes to terms with this and fast-tracks the inclusion of people with disabilities, regardless of whether there is legislation or not. We can do the right thing without having laws in place.”
The first critical ingredient of mainstreaming workers with disabilities in the formal economy is to focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t.
“Businesses need to shift their mindset,” Shapiro says, taking his own company as an example. “All of our 100 factory employees have a disability or are unskilled, and all of them are exceptionally valuable to the company. This is because we know their strengths and capabilities, and where and how to apply those.
“That, and our wish to tap into a valuable and often ignored talent pool, is why we chose to work only with traditionally unemployable people. It forms part of how we see the role of diversity in creating innovation whilst doing good.”
Lebogang Mashego, one of LESCO’s long-standing staff members, contracted polio when she was eight years old. “Most companies don’t give us individuals with disabilities, many opportunities. If I hadn’t been working here, I would have been sitting at home earning nothing and doing nothing,” she says.
“Here, they treat us like we have no disability, and this gives us the confidence we need in life. Our dignity is restored,” she adds.
The same opportunities
A second key pillar of successfully boosting disability inclusion in the workspace is to give workers with a disability the same rights and opportunities as other colleagues.
“Like with any worker, give them opportunities to grow, develop and expand their skill set so that they can grow and take on more responsibilities,” says LESCO chairman, Sipho Nkosi. “It is their right, and looking at the inequality problem in South Africa, a business’s duty.”
Nkosi adds that deepening employees’ hard and soft skills is critical to building their confidence, both inside and outside of the workplace. LESCO does this by providing staff with speech, physio, and occupational therapy weekly through the LESCO Care programme, over and above skills training initiatives. This benefits the company too.
When companies win, the economy wins
“More confident staff are happier and more productive workers. All of this enhances operations, too. Successful local companies are, after all, important drivers of the local economy,” Nkosi says. “This is particularly relevant as we are recovering from lockdown.”
Deputy Minister for the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Hlengiwe Buhle Mkhize, said that every programme that gives someone empowerment and economic opportunity is vital for everybody’s overall wellbeing – especially people with disabilities who will find financial independence.
“Manufacturing has a massive role to play in South Africa’s economic recovery plan and if we are to build our economy inclusive of the disability sector, then we need to emulate what companies like LESCO Manufacturing are doing,” she states.
“We must encourage private procurement practises that seek out companies and suppliers owned by or comprised of a workforce of persons with disabilities to really push for a procurement model that empowers this sector. For me, this is an important objective because the disability sector is not looking for handouts, but opportunities to work and contribute to the economy,” she concludes.