A survey of more than 600 workers with disabilities in Nigeria’s formal and informal sectors, conducted by the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) Women Commission and the Solidarity Center in collaboration with Nigerian unions and disability rights organizations, finds that most workers with disabilities cannot access decent work as defined by the UN International Labor Organization (ILO).
“It provides evidence for what we have been saying for so long [and is] a powerful tool for advocacy,” says Nigeria disability advocate and FAECARE Foundation Executive Director Ndifreke (Freky) Andrew-Essien.”
“Securing Equal Access to Decent Work in Nigeria: A Report by Workers with Disabilities,” reports quantitative data collected from 322 men and 338 women workers with disabilities across seven geopolitical zones and the Federal Capital Territory in Nigeria, supported by qualitative data collected from union members. The study—for its sample size and breadth, as well as for the collaboration between trade unions and disability rights organizations—is the first of its kind. An estimated 1 billion people experience disability worldwide, the majority in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization’s 2011 World Report on Disability, between 25 million and 27 million people experience a disability in Nigeria, the majority of whom live below the poverty line. Indeed, disability, gender and low socioeconomic status interact to keep people in poverty.
The survey found that, regardless of legislation aimed at addressing diversity in the Nigerian workplace, disabled workers do not experience the same access to employment opportunities as their counterparts without disabilities and often face physical, social, economic and/or environmental barriers to participation.
Findings and Recommendations
Most of the 660 workers surveyed are self-employed and in the informal sector. Almost half of respondents earn less than Nigeria’s minimum wage and say their work environment is not accommodating to their disability. Most (62 percent) cite transportation as the most significant obstacle to accessing work, followed by a lack of disability-friendly facilities (33 percent) and poor communication with or unsupportive co-workers (19 percent). Nearly a quarter of disabled workers say they work more than eight hours without overtime pay. A similar number had experienced gender-based violence or harassment (GBVH) during the previous two years.
Researchers conclude that a variety of actions—by the Nigerian government, employers and unions—could build an inclusive working environment that respects, includes and accommodates disabled workers. This includes the revision of laws to outline reasonable accommodations in employment and the creation of a disability tax fund to provide adequate social security benefits. In addition, unions, along with disabled workers, should work together to demand reasonable accommodations at work and greater accessibility.
The ILO defines decent work as work that is available to all equally, is productive and delivers a fair income and security in the workplace, provides equal access to social protections—such as pensions, and adequate and affordable healthcare—and affords workers freedom to participate equally in decisions affecting their work lives.
To promote youth civic engagement and the fair employment of women, workers with disabilities and those migrating outside the country to earn a living, the Solidarity Center’s second annual School of Young Leaders in Bishkek educated dozens of young people in mid-September about their protections under the country’s labor code, with a special focus on disability rights. Event attendees—selected from around the country based on a writing competition—included youth and mentors with disabilities.
“This is my first experience in the framework of an inclusive society—where no one divides into some groups, everyone supports each other, accepts each other equally and shares their experiences,” said Sezim Tolomusheva, organizing and socioeconomic protection lead specialist for the Union of Textile Workers of Kyrgyzstan.
During a session covering how to engage traditional and social media, local disability-rights activist and blogger Askar Turdugulov encouraged attendees to pursue their goals despite limitations, such as the spinal injury that impaired his ability to walk from age 18.
“This [event] is a bright example in the promotion of the principle of ‘equal opportunities for all’ that gives equal labor rights for all people, regardless of their origin, gender or health status,” said Turdugulov.
Participating NGOs, trade unions and government agencies also provided young attendees—many of whom work directly to aid migrant workers and some of whom may one day migrate for work—with information about common challenges for migrant workers, the protective role of the Kyrgyz Migrant Workers’ Trade Union, the importance of pre-departure trainings and information about labor laws in destination countries. Other highlights included discussion on the rights of women at work under national legislation and the International Labor Organization’s 2019 Convention: Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work (C190). NGOs contributing expertise to the event included the “Equal Opportunities” Social Center and the Public Association of Girls with Disabilities, Nazik-Kyz.
Youth un- and under-employment in Kyrgyzstan stands at 55 percent. Most young people feel forced to migrate in search of work, primarily to Russia and Kazakhstan, although also further to South Korea, Turkey or other countries. Kyrgyz migrant workers provide more than one-third of the Central Asian country’s GDP in money they send home. When workers migrate from Kyrgyzstan, they often face discrimination, exploitation and unsafe working conditions. Many are at risk of being trafficked and subjected to forced labor.
Kyrgyzstan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on February 7, 2019. The primary work needed for CRPD implementation will be expanding access for people with disabilities to education, justice and employment opportunities, physical therapy and rehabilitation services, medical and social assistance, and ensuring their free movement through promotion of universal design.
Sana Sabheni, 32, is confined to a wheelchair at her home in a four-story apartment complex in Tunisia. She does not leave her apartment for months at a time because her building does not have an elevator. Without resources to enable her mobility, Sabheni, who lives with her elderly mother, must crawl down two flights of stairs to reach street level. From there, she depends upon someone to carry her wheelchair down to her and push her through the streets. Lacking basic provisions for accessibility, she is unable to hold a good job or engage in everyday life.
Through Solidarity Center assistance, Sabheni now has an electric wheelchair and the possibility of employment. Credit: Houcem Manai
Sabheni was among 1,601 participants in Solidarity Center surveys among workers with disabilities in Morocco and Tunisia. Conducted in partnership with Union Marocaine du Travail (UMT), Union Generales des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), and the Arab Forum for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the surveys are the first of their kind to examine how workers with disabilities and unions can address discrimination and lack of accessibility for workers in North Africa. The experiences of Sabheni and other workers with disabilities reveal how a powerful combination of discrimination, lack of appropriate accommodation and poor enforcement of existing laws deprives persons with disabilities of good jobs.
While the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that persons with disabilities account for 15 percent of the global population, in the Arab world unemployment rates for persons with disabilities can be as high as 90 percent. The Solidarity Center studies find that efforts to improve employment among persons with disabilities focus on “make-work” programs that rely on local charities rather than address accessibility. As a result, workers with disabilities often are marginalized into informal economy jobs with little access to workplace rights through unions.
Although legislation in both Morocco and Tunisia establishes hiring quotas for persons with disabilities, the surveys’ results suggest most private-sector employers pay little heed to this law and labor inspections have proven inadequate in forcing compliance.
Women with Disabilities also Challenged by Sexism
Sabheni now has an electric wheelchair and the promise of employment, the result of Solidarity Center partners’ support with support from Lilia Makhlouf from the Ministry of Employment and Vocational Training, and the generosity of a local businesswoman. Sabheni must still manage two flights of stairs on her own but once at the lower level of her building, she is able to access her new wheelchair and independent life outside her building.
Yet most persons with disabilities in North Africa will face immense obstacles to finding good jobs. In particular, women with disabilities are challenged by the double burden of sexism and ableism. For North African women, sexual harassment, violence, and other forms of abuse mean job opportunities can be both scarce and exploitative.
Reflecting on survey results, Nahla Sayadi, coordinator of the Women’s Committee in Monastir, Tunisia, and a member of the UGTT, summarized the dire conditions facing women with disabilities at work, in both Tunisia and Morocco.
“Even within the category of workers with disabilities, men have significantly better conditions than women,” she said “The rate of sexual harassment is shocking. Women with disabilities at work are subjected to exploitation—as workers, as disabled, and especially as women—three times as often.”
Unions the Strongest Voices for Rights of Workers with Disabilities
Sayadi touches on an important aspect of the struggle for disability rights at work. As an issue that is at once invisible and highly intersectional, disability rights can be a difficult subject around which to help workers form unions. Workers with disabilities may feel particularly beholden to their employers or otherwise fear reprisal, leaving them reluctant to speak out for their rights. By working alongside civil society groups, rights activists, and union leaders to complete these landmark studies, the Solidarity Center assembled a strong coalition committed to supporting workers with disabilities.
“[The study] has given me a lot of energy to continue my struggle as a trade unionist and activist,” Sayadi concluded.
The ILO reported in a recent review that labor unions are already the strongest voices advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities at work around the world. Public-sector unions, where survey data shows persons with disabilities experience higher levels of union representation and are natural organizers around rights issues because of their position at the nexus of governance and work. Armed with unprecedented data on the subject, union allies are now better prepared to fulfill this role across North Africa.
Following the studies, which were funded by the Ford Foundation, 13 workers with disabilities contacted the UMT in Morocco to learn more about the union and their rights as workers. In Tunisia, the study brought 82 workers with disabilities into the UGTT. Working with a regional labor movement committed to building inclusivity, the Solidarity Center is empowering persons with disabilities to exercise their rights as workers in a region where they face dynamic challenges to finding decent work.
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