Inclusive business recovery post COVID-19

June 2020
A man and women shake hands.

Samuel, 21, has been hunting for a job for almost a year. Since graduating from university he has had an unpaid internship as a video editor and done some freelance editing work for up and coming YouTubers in Kenya, where he lives.

But the search for a permanent position has been more difficult for Samuel than his fellow students. As a wheelchair user he needs a job in a building which is accessible and it’s more difficult for him to travel long distances for opportunities, especially if accessibility isn’t guaranteed when he gets there.

He says: “I have to ensure the place I am going is a sure bet, I am going to secure work I applied for to avoid losses and extra expenditure.”

Like other graduates, he wants a job that is in the discipline that he’s trained for. But his options to make money in temporary roles are also limited by his disability.

“Those without disabilities can do any other work, especially the manual work. Not necessarily easy to get the job you applied for so you can choose to be a vendor, engage yourself in construction, manual and casual work like sweeping.

“Myself I need a specific job and that requires, to secure the job, the place to be accessible. Is the environment conducive for me in terms of accessibility?”

A man in an electric wheelchair posing for a photograph

Samuel, 21, jobseeker in Kenya

A man in an electric wheelchair posing for a photograph

“I have a feeling that coronavirus is a setback for me to come back from. I’m not expecting any employer to contact me because of this pandemic. Those places where I applied for my job no one can employ at the moment, there’s no hope that any companies will be employing right now when they’re incurring losses.”

A paper by Inclusive Futures partner, Development Initiatives, verifies Samuel’s concerns. The percentage of Kenya’s population in active employment, both informal and formal, has fallen five percentage points to 65.3 per cent of men and 16.5 percentage points to 48.8 per cent of women.

It reports: “The reduction has been caused by job losses in both the informal and formal sectors. The virus has disrupted the flow of revenues and limited the supply and demand for goods and services, pushing employers to use different coping mechanisms to stay afloat. Employers have been forced to downsize the workforce, give unpaid leave or make temporary layoffs.”

The challenges for jobseekers with disabilities were complex before the economic impact of COVID-19.

Simon Brown, global technical lead for economic empowerment at Sightsavers, works on the Inclusive Futures formal employment programme. He explains that barriers for jobseekers with disabilities range from the internalisation of social stigma by people with disabilities, to employers lacking confidence in hiring people with disabilities, and a gap in recruitment between aspiring jobseekers and vacancies which are available.

“It’s going to be a tough couple of years, at least,” he reflects about the economic impact of COVID-19. “The recovery will be gradual and different by country, sector and potentially by company.

“But economies will recover. If we get it right and continue to focus on those three areas of the labour market system: the disability confidence of employers, employment readiness and self-confidence of jobseekers, as well as activities that influence the rules of the system, we get people in the best possible place.

“We have innovations like first shot, building pools of talent of persons with disabilities that are qualified for the jobs that companies forecast that are employment ready and companies are able to say they will prioritise them ahead of others.

“If companies do buy into these, and we do see quite a number of companies say ‘yes we’re going to do that’, jobseekers are going to be in the best possible place to be able to compete equally.

“The labour market system has not gone away, has not collapsed, it’s in a shock and it will recover and we need to make sure persons with disabilities are right at the front of the queue.”

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A man making something with electronic materials.

The companies which committed to disability inclusion have been using lock-down restrictions to train their staff about the fundamentals of disability remotely.

“Having a diverse and inclusive environment where every person can bring their full and authentic selves to work is something we want Unilever to be famous for,” Alan Jope, CEO, Unilever

In total, 250 staff from across Unilever in Bangladesh have taken part in online training, run by Inclusive Futures formal employment programmes in partnership with fellow UK aid-funded economic empowerment programme i2i (Innovation to Inclusion), run by pan disability charity, Leonard Cheshire.

It is part of Unilever’s global commitment that five per cent of its workforce will be people with disabilities by 2025.

The training was run on behalf of the Bangladesh Business and Disability Network as part of broader work to ensure businesses across the country are supportive of employing women and men with disabilities, and that their needs are adequately met.

The network’s CEO, Murteza Khan, said: “It’s very encouraging to see a multinational company like Unilever coming forward in such a positive way, particularly under the current circumstances with COVID-19. We hope it will inspire other employers to proceed in a similar way to becoming disability confident.”

In Kenya, companies Coca Cola and Diageo have pledged to follow suit and take part in the training, with Diageo also working with the Inclusive Futures programme on a disability audit of its premises.

Simon is confident that companies are driven to include people with disabilities because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of the economic climate: “I’ve never come across any employer that’s said ‘show me a business case, a number, what’s in it for me in terms of the financing?’. Unilever’s former chief executive Paul Polman, he talked of an $8tn global market of consumer spending that was being ignored, controlled by persons with disability, their friends, their family.

“That number is quite compelling and attractive. But putting that aside, it’s the right thing to do. We should be reflective of society in the way that we operate our businesses. And that is much more attractive to companies than a number that, whilst very large, is not very tangible for a company in Bangladesh or any of the other companies where we work.”

A man packs a customer's shopping bag in a supermarket.

Opportunities for inclusion

The pause and replanning of the formal employment programme due to COVID-19 has also enhanced the inclusion of more complex disabilities in other areas of the Inclusive Futures work.

Sustainable Hospitality Alliance (SHA) is reviewing its curriculum of training for young people into the hospitality sector to make it inclusive of people with intellectual disabilities with the support of Inclusion international‘s member organisations in country.

Kimber Bialik, project manager for Inclusion International, said: “The pause in the programme because of COVID has really provided an opportunity to rethink the way we are doing programming and ensure that all of our activities are designed in a way that is accessible to all people with disabilities. We have linked SHA up with United Disabled Persons of Kenya and the Kenya Association of the Intellectually Handicapped to create a joint plan to adapt the curriculum to ensure that jobseekers with intellectual disabilities can succeed in SHA’s training for the for the hospitality sector. The delays as a result of COVID will give us the opportunity to do the same with other partners to ensure program outcomes are always inclusive and accessible.”

Despite any setbacks due to COVID-19 and its economic impact, Simon Brown is still confident about what the programme can achieve: “I’m confident we will evidence how the system can adapt to be more inclusive of persons with disabilities. We might not get as many persons with disabilities into jobs as perhaps we might have hoped because of the coronavirus and the economic shocks, but we will evidence what’s possible, I’m absolutely undoubted about that.”


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