With job cuts and recruitment freezes, come fears the disabled workforce will be left behind
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By Sarah Shearman
LONDON, July 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Returning to work after lockdown is proving especially challenging for staff at Britain's Bravest Manufacturing Company (BBMC), most of whom have disabilities or are military veterans.
At the company's two factories in England, production lines have been reconfigured to allow social distancing and employees are being kitted out with protective gear suitable for those with special requirements such as gloves for amputees.
"For some of these people it will be a huge change and means the world that they knew and were used to has completely altered," said Kate Bull, managing director of the company, which produces signs and wooden pallets.
"The investment of time to get those people to feel safe and manage the change... has been quite intensive," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
BBMC is one of hundreds of social enterprises – businesses that aim to do good - worldwide that strive to build more inclusive workforces by hiring people with disabilities who may otherwise have limited job prospects.
As the coronavirus crisis causes millions of job losses globally and leaves many companies struggling to stay afloat, labour experts fear it could reverse progress on workers' rights, particularly for vulnerable groups such as the disabled.
"It's a huge blow for disabled people generally because it's hard enough to find jobs in normal times but under these circumstances it is hard for everybody – but doubly so for disabled candidates," said Jane Hatton, CEO of Evenbreak, a recruitment social enterprise for disabled workers.
While British companies have got better at hiring more diverse workforces to include people with disabilities, there is a risk of that taking a backseat during the crisis, she said.
"Traditionally employers will look for non-disabled staff before they will look for disabled staff because they perceive them to be higher risk or more expensive, which is not the case," she said.
'ONLY REASON TO LEAVE HOME'
People with disabilities are also more worried than others about the effect of COVID-19 on their health, well-being and access to essential goods and health care, a recent survey by Britain's Office For National Statistics (ONS) showed.
About 13.7 million of Britain's 65 million people have disabilities, according to ONS statistics.
As a social enterprise, Bull said BBMC felt a greater responsibility to support workers worried about their health and keeping their jobs.
"Some (of the workers) have quite limited lives out of work and it's the only reason why some of them leave the house," she said.
While work nearly dried up at one stage, its factories kept operating with a skeleton staff during the lockdown and the company is now welcoming back more employees each week. About one third of its 107 staff are currently furloughed.
Before the virus, skills shortages in areas such as social care, hospitality and retail meant many employers were hiring, giving Evenbreak's 24,000 active candidates an advantage.
But as the crisis causes recruitment freezes and higher unemployment, job adverts on Evenbreak have fallen from about 2,000 a month to 500 or 600, though clients have said they hope to start recruiting again.
Campaigners also fear disabled workers could become less visible as a result of the crisis.
Thailand's Steps with Theera runs training centres and coffee shops in Bangkok and Phuket for young adults, many of whom have special educational needs.
Much of its work has had to shift online during the crisis, but remote learning and education has been challenging or impossible for some, said founder Max Simpson.
"In addition, the mental health of many of our trainees has been impacted. All of our graduates lost their jobs in the first cuts and it is unclear if they will return," he said.
"We believe seeing people with learning differences living and working successfully is the key to changing attitudes. If we can't do that anymore, it's going to be challenging."
WORKING FROM HOME
Some positives could come from the sweeping changes wrought by the pandemic on working life, however.
All of Evenbreak's 12 staff, including Hatton, have disabilities and work from home, which has become commonplace due to lockdown curbs and could benefit workers who require greater flexibility.
Hatton said she was optimistic that the goodwill the crisis has created - from neighbours helping each other to greater respect for low-paid essential workers like supermarket staff - might lead to lasting social change.
"I'm hoping we're going to get a better sense of ethics and valuing employees and looking after employees," she said.
While some manufacturing businesses might switch to machines to make certain processes more efficient with social distancing, Bull said that would clash with BBMC's mission to create jobs.
"What we always seek to do is not take people out of the manufacturing process, but to say how do we put them in and make it profitable at the other end," she said.
"One of our biggest assets is our people."
(Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans. Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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