By Frank Andrews and Sawsan Tabazah
Holding a degree and speaking languages can set you apart in Jordan’s saturated, stagnant labour market, and may even clinch you a job. But for disabled people, who are often seen as unable to work, that norm seems not to apply.
Laila Nabhan has a master’s degree in Human Rights and speaks fluent Russian and English, as well as her native Arabic. Yet, she complains that employers ignore her skills and qualifications, focusing instead on her disability; as a 5-year-old, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which can make walking and stability difficult.
“When you’re 31 years old and you’re still asking for money from your parents, it’s an issue, it’s a big issue,” says Nabhan, who has in the past managed to find some paid work for a charity but never a full-time job.
“Just give me a chance and I’ll show myself," she says, "I have language skills, I have a high-level degree, so why don’t I have a chance like any other person?”
Sara Abu-Ali, a 26-year old social entrepreneur who has been blind since birth, faced a similar experience after graduating in 2016: “We cancelled the interview because the job does not suit you,” one company said when they found out about her disability.
“People with disabilities are aware of their capabilities, they won’t apply for a certain job if they can’t do it,” she says. “They won’t embarrass themselves and be in a situation where they would be rejected.”
Nabhan and Abu-Ali’s struggle to find work highlights the shortcomings of a quota system that was first introduced in Jordan in 1993, then updated in 2007 and 2017, that required public and private companies to employ a certain number of people with disabilities.
Over the past quarter-century, successive governments have failed to protect disability rights and enforce the quotas due to legal loopholes, conflicting laws, paltry fines for violators, deep-seated social stigma and a lack of accessible workplaces and transport networks.
Between the first two quota laws — the 1993 Disabled Person’s Care Law and the 2007 Law for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — the proportion of jobs to be filled by disabled people doubled, from 2 to 4% of the total workforce in institutions with more than 50 employees, in line with Jordan’s endorsement of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The 2007 law legislated the creation of the Higher Council for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (HCD), headed by Prince Raad Bin Zaid, which has since fought for equal rights for disabled people from within government.
In 2017, Jordan enacted a new sweeping disability rights law, praised by Human Rights Watch, which further increased the quota. The law stipulated that employers with over 50 employees must fill up to 4% of vacancies with people with disabilities, and stated they must provide reasonable accommodation to make workplaces barrier-free: changing the height of desks, modifying training materials, or hiring interpreters.
Jordanians with disabilities make up 11.1% of the population (around 650,000 Jordanians), according to the 2015 census.
Two-thirds of working age disabled Jordanians are unemployed and not looking for jobs, while just under 28% work, according to a 2016 study from the Department of Statistics.
Unemployment in Jordan hit 19% last year.
Jordan's workforce is estimated to be around 2 million, 63.5% of whom work in the private sector.
Playing with Words
The move from monitoring the number of employees to the number of vacancies filled is being exploited by employers, according to Anan Shalalfeh, the head of recruitment for disabled people at the Ministry of Labour (MoL), who says some companies exploit the law and say they don’t have vacancies.
What’s more, inspecting vacancies filled is far trickier than inspecting employees hired.
“The quota is “confusing us and [private sector] corporations,” says Shalalfeh. To get around this complication and plug the loophole, the MoL has drafted regulation that relies on the old definition of the quota, meaning inspectors check for the total number of employees rather than vacancies filled.
The HCD's first annual report on the status of people with disabilities in Jordan for the year 2018 said that the quota's lack of implementation mechanisms had meant employers who violate the law often escape punishment.
The report said that employers could use the loophole as an excuse not to employ disabled people “under the pretext of having too few vacancies.”
“This is the job of the Ministry of Labour,” says Muhannad al-Azzeh, Secretary General of the HCD, referring to the enforcement of the new law. “To me [the new quota] is very realistic and it has logic.”
Azzeh admits that it is “really difficult” to calculate who is filling vacancies, but thinks that strictly enforcing the old law would mean some employers having to fire non-disabled employees to meet the quota.
The MoL’s 174 inspectors are responsible for checking up on around 4,475 institutions that fall under the quota law.
In 2019, inspectors made 5,069 inspection visits, according to the MoL’s spokesperson, Ghaidaa Al Awamleh. 2,185 companies were found to be not employing people with disabilities, resulting in warnings for 415 companies. 169 of those did not adjust within the given notice and were sent to the Magistrate’s court.
Companies in violation of the quota are fined between 50-100JD ($70-140).
Minwer Abu Al-Ghanam, the former Director of the MoL’s Inspection Department, said in a March 2019 interview that private sector companies weren’t filling the quota “as it should [be filled].”
Akhtaboot, a recruitment company, held a job fair for disabled people in 2016 that brought together 27 companies working in technology, banking, education, and health, and attracted around 3,000 job seekers with hearing, visual and physical disabilities.
These companies had a total of 1,207 vacancies, but only 15% ended up hiring persons with disabilities, according to figures obtained from Akhtaboot.
The investigation’s reporters asked several companies that participated in the job fair what hindered them from employing disabled people. One replied that their workplace was inaccessible and they had concerns about the productivity of disabled employees.
Numbers obtained from a Freedom of Information request to the Civil Service Bureau (CSB), a government body responsible for hiring in the public sector, show that public institutions fell short of hiring goals in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Fewer than 2 in 100 people hired had a disability.
Jordan’s contradictory hiring laws are another loophole for employers. The 2017 law prohibits them from requiring candidates to be free of disability, yet Article 43 of the Civil Service bylaw requires applicants to be physically fit.
Azzeh of the HCD describes the latter as a “very disastrous article” because it gives doctors the authority to label someone as fit or unfit according to an archaic medical definition of disability, disqualifying them from work.
The Status of Persons with Disabilities and their Rights, a report covering 2018 published by the HCD this March, raised the same problem: “The list of diseases issued [based on Article 17 of the Medical Reporting and Committees System No. 13 of 2014] constitutes an obstacle for people with disabilities that prevents their appointment or delegation.”
Sameh Al-Nasser, Secretary General of the CSB, puts the scarcity of public sector jobs for disabled people down to a lack of qualified candidates and Jordan’s faltering economy. 2,000 of the 389,000 people waiting on the public sector job-seekers database have one or more disabilities, according to Nasser.
Nasser showed the reporters of this investigation the Prime Ministry’s approval to retrain 167 candidates with disabilities who hold diploma degrees in education and have been stuck on a government job seekers database for more than a decade. The Ministry of Education issued a decision in 1995 that required teachers to hold at least a bachelor's degree to work in public schools.
According to the approval, the CSB will hire 59 people annually between 2019 and 2021, after training them on typing, archiving, and data entry for administrative jobs in various governmental institutions.
Businessman Yusri Tahboub employs “four or five” people with hearing disabilities in his kitchen fittings factory out of a total 300 workers — far below 2%.
“There is no law that forces private sector companies to hire people with disabilities… it’s voluntary,” Tahboub mistakenly asserts during an interview in his office, adding that he “never” thinks about the quota.
Ahmed Awad, head of the Phenix [sic] Centre, an Amman-based think tank, says he tried to employ two disabled people three years ago, but both left; one because he couldn’t come from Zarqa to the Centre in North-West Amman because of the lack of public transport; the other, because his skills didn’t improve despite training, says Awad.
Some of the institutions that do recruit disabled people only do so to abide by legal obligations and don’t give them any actual work.
Hamza Barakat, a 26-year-old from Tabarbour who has been blind since birth, is a "surplus" teacher with the Ministry of Education. He has worked at a school for three years, he says, but only taught classes for two months. Management doesn’t give him tasks, he adds, but he teaches students with learning difficulties voluntarily.
Barakat, who holds a BA in English Literature and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Jordan, calls the quota “mere ink on paper".
An “Exceptional Tool”
Multiple countries worldwide use some form of quota, though there is debate over how effective they are. Proponents say they counter discrimination, while critics say they are tokenistic and single out disabled people for special treatment. The UK first employed quotas in 1944, but scrapped them in the 90s in favor of an act outlawing discrimination against disabled people.
Azzeh, the HCD’s Secretary General, describes the quotas as a “temporary”, “exceptional tool” that should work with a longer-term solution for getting disabled people into work.
Employers must alter their mentality if Jordan wants to achieve equal opportunities, says Azzeh, who is blind. They have internalized the “myth that people with disabilities are incapable.”
He added that the prospect of a political reshuffle was “one of the nightmares I have every night” as it means “beginning from scratch” with new ministers, on the importance of disability rights.
In the 13 years since the HCD was created, the government has changed 12 times, and has seen seven prime ministers appointed and dismissed.
In Jordan, Parliament monitors the government’s performance on specific issues of national interest via specialised bodies such as the Women and Family Committee or the Youth and Education Committee. There is no such task force for disability issues.
But people who face workplace discrimination based on their disability can resort to the HCD’s Equal Opportunities Committee, which was set up to enact provisions of the 2017 law. It is headed by the HCD’s Secretary General and made up of several government representatives.
The committee received 54 complaints between 2018 and October 2019. 17 cases were closed after the complainant was promoted or transferred to an accessible workplace; or the employer made their own workplace barrier-free.
The committee checks the complaint and supporting documents then decides whether to take the case on, whereby it mediates between employer and employee.
Most people with disabilities applying for jobs face discrimination, according to Buthaina Friehat, who sits on the Equal Opportunities Committee, though it can be tough to prove.
Deeply-ingrained social stigma surrounding disability in Jordan has surfaced throughout this investigation as one of the biggest obstacles to fair hiring.
Azzeh of the HCD says that stereotypes limit disabled people’s career paths: “If you are a wheelchair user you fit more as a call centre employee, for example. If you are deaf you should be a carpenter.”
People with disabilities are seen with “admiration or empathy,” says surplus teacher Barakat. They either have “superpowers” for overcoming their disability—“as if [people] are looking at a cartoon character, like Superman”—or are hopeless and in need of handouts. “[People] look at them with empathy as if they are a burden on society, especially if they are poor, uneducated.”
The government’s National Aid Fund says it gives some cash to the families of disabled Jordanians who can’t work and poor families that have children with disabilities. But the average monthly handout of JD47.5 ($67), equating to JD570 ($803) per year, is insufficient in a country where the poverty threshold per person is JD814 per year ($1148). 15% of Jordanians are classed as poor.
Ahmed Nimr, a 16 year-old Jordanian, has been working since the age of 12. His father, who was left unemployed and unable to do physical tasks after a workplace injury, gets money from the government, Nimr says, but not enough to keep Nimr in education.
“I wanted to stay in school,” says Nimr, who now works at a cafe in North-West Amman, “but when my path changed I had to accept it for what it was.”
Ahlam’s Story: A Bumpy Road
Beneath the title “Supervisor of the Month”, Ahlam smiles out from a grainy passport photo. “As A Recognition And Encouragement For Your Dedication And Hard Work,” reads the certificate.
Dressed in all black with a black silken headscarf during our first interview in March 2019, Ahlam used her crutches for support as she eased onto a sofa in her living room. Sweet coffee and a tray of baklava sat on the table in front of her.
Ahlam, (a pseudonym so she can talk freely about her current and former employers), has needed to use crutches since she was 6, but says they don’t hinder her ability to work.
Ahlam has other certificates. She keeps them in her East Amman home as mementos of her time at a big supermarket chain, progressing from “Employee of the Month” to “Manager of the Year”.
But she lost that job after a change in management, and like so many other disabled people in Jordan, had terrible trouble finding another. It took her seven months and was a significant pay cut.
“I just go every day to this bad company, spend seven or eight hours there, then come back to my home, sit with my mother for some time then go to sleep,” she told us last March.
Her eyes teared up and her feet squirmed, one hand working away at the other, as she admitted growing so miserable she considered suicide. She pointed out to her balcony and said sometimes she thought about jumping off.
“You think if people read my story they will change?” She asked, shaking her head. “They will read and close their PC, for sure.”
Years after losing her post at the supermarket, however, Ahlam finally got a pay rise in recent months and says she finally feels financially secure in her new job. “It took them [The employer and co-workers] a while to really know me,” she says. Not everyone is so lucky.
Inhospitable Environment, Inaccessible Transportation
The 2017 law also forbids excluding someone from school or university because of disability, but several interviewees spoke of being rejected because schools couldn’t accommodate them — either due to lack of accessibility or fear they would be shunned by peers.
The law says disabled students must be allowed to study whatever they want, but interviewees said they were forbidden from taking certain subjects, limiting their career options.
Surplus teacher Barakat wanted to study computing, but was given few options and instead chose English.
Barakat’s father has to drive him to get to work at his school. In Barakat’s case this is because the school is in a hilly neighbourhood that he can’t navigate alone — others need lifts because of the lack of public transport.
Back in her living room, Ahlam recalls going to a party at a fancy hotel where everyone was celebrating — she doesn’t remember why — and taking photos. Then, when she left, she waited out on the street for two hours before a taxi stopped.
The Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) started operating 135 accessible buses last year, as part of the “Bus Rapid Transit” project. They aim to complete the roll-out of the project by the end of 2020, with a total 286 buses serving Amman.
It has been three years since the adoption of the new law for people with disabilities, but Layla Nabhan and others like her are yet to see a concrete improvement in their job prospects or independence.
Nabhan is still looking for work.
“I know from everyone around me it’s my disability,” she says. “But I think if I started to believe that it was my disability, I might just stop looking for a job.”
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News
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