A new video shows the strategies unions and civil society allies in Kyrgyzstan, with Solidarity Center support, are using to advance and protect the rights of people with disabilities. Strategies include coalition-building and joint advocacy projects with national and local disability rights organizations, pro-bono legal support, data collection, legislative reform and trainings-of-trainers with disabilities.
In 2019, the Kyrgyz Republic ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which promotes the full and effective inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. However, discrimination against people with disabilities has persisted. A Solidarity Center research study in 2022 revealed that only 20 percent of people with disabilities surveyed in Kyrgyzstan were employed, and most were in insecure seasonal or part-time jobs.
Since 2019, the Solidarity Center has conducted a program focused on reducing discrimination in employment and promoting the labor rights of workers with disabilities, the first of its kind in Kyrgyzstan. Through a combination of legislative analysis, large-scale media campaigns, the development of a mobile application, individual legal support, educational trainings and collaboration with key organizations, the Solidarity Center is working to make real change for people with disabilities.
In 2022, the Solidarity Center raised the need for changes to the Labor Code, harmonizing regulations and mechanisms to improve laws that impact people with disabilities. Kyrgyzstan’s government has demonstrated the political will to make legislative changes that facilitate greater access to employment and education for people with disabilities, but further progress is needed to ensure legal protections are enforced in the workplace.
Nabil El-Moumni, a Tunisian disability rights advocate and blind receptionist at the local hospital of Mareth, Gabes, advocated–and won–important changes at his workplace to accommodate both workers and patients with disabilities. At his urging, the hospital installed an access ramp and prepared illustrated signs to help people who cannot hear or speak access the hospital’s various departments.
“They can have access to that department’s services independently, without the help of strangers,” El-Moumni says in a new documentary, “We Are All Different,” on the experience of workers with disabilities in Tunisia produced by the UGTT (Tunisian General Labor Union) and the Solidarity Center.
“I am blind, and I want more independence in my work,” he says. “The phone numbers I work with are registered in numerical support. I read via text-to-speech. I prepared papers in large format.”
El-Moumni’s support for worker rights initially cost him his job. “After that,” he says, “I started a general strike in front of Gabe’s governorate.” He was reinstated on January 13, 2016.
A diverse group of workers with disabilities, from gardeners and street cleaners to municipal employees and athletic competitors, share their experience with discrimination and the barriers they face in the workplace, in their communities and in accessing government services and jobs due to accessibility limitations—both in public buildings and transportation.
Many also speak of the satisfaction they experience in their work, and the gains workers with disabilities have made in receiving protections and accommodations, and being empowered to advocate for their needs.
Kalthoum Barkallah, Solidarity Center acting country program director for North Africa, says the documentary “sheds light on the reality of persons with disabilities in order to build general public awareness and push public authorities, civil society and partners to take up their issues and defend their rights.”
The film debuted on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, December 3, 2021.
When the Tunisian Parliament this summer approved a law increasing the percentage of people with disabilities in civil service, union activists and their allies in the disability rights and human rights movements took a moment to celebrate the victory—and to reflect on the five-year advocacy campaign it took to achieve this goal.
“By paying attention to the issues of people with disabilities, working on more information and support for them, and considering their rights an integral part of the human rights system, people with disabilities are able to make valuable contributions to their communities if opportunities are available to them,” the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) said in a statement.
The new law stipulates that no fewer than 5 percent of annual public service assignments for workers with a college degree who have been unemployed for 10 years are allocated to differently abled workers.
Unions, Civil Society Coalition Key to Success
A broad-based partnership with key disability rights activists fueled the campaign’s success. With Solidarity Center support, a 10-member leadership committee of differently abled workers from the UGTT and the Arab Forum for Persons with Disabilities, and a prominent civil society activist steered the project. The committee, half of whom were women, conducted train-the-trainer sessions with union leaders and representatives of organizations focused on the economic and social integration of workers with disabilities who, in turn, held similar trainings across the country.
“The rights of persons with disabilities are an integral part of the human rights system,” says Moanem Amira, assistant secretary general in charge of civil service unions, and coalition partner. Universal Human Rights frameworks, such as the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, establish the right of those with disabilities to decent work without discrimination or exclusion.
Building on internationally guaranteed rights, the coalition strategized with workshop participants around the country on crafting campaigns for passage of national legislation. The coalition organized awareness days, including those that focused on the role of unions in reaching workers with disabilities, and mobilized them to achieve their economic and social rights. Workers and rights activists went on to champion the socio-professional inclusion of individuals with disabilities in the workplace and connect with government representatives to monitor and follow up on violations against workers with disabilities.
Dozens of workers with disabilities joined unions throughout the campaign through the outreach of activists such as Nabil Moumni. From his home in Gabes, in southeastern Tunisia, Moumni interviewed workers with disabilities in the public and private sectors to better understand their working conditions, held trainings and shared with workers the benefits of forming unions to achieve their rights.
A disability rights activist since 2012, Moumni says his involvement in the project and the hard work of those involved inspired him “to be a more enthusiastic as an activist.
“Everyone who took part in this project did their very best to reach important outcomes, because now awareness of human rights among trade unionists has reached a stage of maturity that makes the UGTT a locomotive for advocating social issues in Tunisia,” he says.
Early on in the campaign, the coalition conducted a first-of-its-kind survey to examine how workers with disabilities and unions can address discrimination and lack of accessibility for workers in Tunisia. The survey surfaced the immense obstacles workers with disabilities face in finding good jobs. In particular, women with disabilities are challenged by the double burden of sexism and ableism. Sexual harassment, violence and other forms of abuse mean job opportunities can be both scarce and exploitative.
So even while celebrating passage of the new law, coalition members say they are planning to continue working to ensure workers with disabilities can exercise their rights—and already are organizing awareness-raising and advocacy campaigns and building a regional network to support workers with disabilities who can take part in improving their rights at work and in their communities.
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.
Campaign and Media Communications Director
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