Tuesday, 19 May 2015

People with disabilities losing jobs to technology

Charities training them in new skills as many jobs vanish
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 18 May 2015

FOR the last 13 years, Mr Sulaiman Packeer Mohd has been sorting and cleaning those black headphone sets you used to find neatly packed in a clear bag on Singapore Airlines planes.

His job is repetitive but it keeps his fingers nimble and his mind from wandering.

For his effort, Mr Sulaiman, who has intellectual disability and epilepsy, also takes home an allowance.

Since 1991, Singapore Airlines (SIA) has contracted the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) to recycle its headsets by cleaning, testing and repacking them.

Mr Sulaiman has been out of such work since January when SIA introduced disposable earphones on its flights.

This move slashed the number of MINDS workers it needed by half, to just 300.

As businesses turn to technology, and phase out menial tasks in a bid to be more efficient and productive, a rising number of people with disabilities are finding themselves out of a job.

At non-profit organisation Bizlink, the second-largest employer of people with disabilities after the civil service, a number of contracts for the printing of flight tickets and data entry involving warranty cards were lost over the last few years as tickets are being issued electronically and warranties are now registered online.

SPD, another major organisation representing people with disabilities, has also seen orders for its book binding and restoration services plunge by about 40 per cent since 2010.

Many of these books and journals are now published online.

Besides the digital shift, businesses are also moving their production work to other countries in the region due to the high cost of overheads in Singapore.

Bizlink has lost contracts for printing and packing of red packets as a result.

"Primary production works with substantial volume have either moved out of Singapore to lower-cost countries or those that remained have automated their processes," said MINDS executive director Keh Eng Song.

"There are still simple production jobs available but they either come in small volume or on an ad hoc basis."

To help their disabled clients continue to find employment, charities are training them in new skills to take on higher-skilled or higher-value roles.

For example, SPD and Bizlink are teaching those they can to scan and archive documents and do Internet searches of data for companies instead.

A number of their clients with disabilities do manage to take on more challenging jobs.

At SG Enable, a government-established agency formed to provide services for people with disabilities, at least one out of five clients is placed in jobs that require professional skills, such as accounting, graphic design, teaching and administrative work.

The retraining has helped a small proportion of people with disabilities get new jobs and those with higher pay.

For example, Mr Yeo Soon Meng, 47, who has cerebral palsy, earns $700 now by scanning documents. In the past, his pay as a goods packer was $400.

Charities note, however, that only some of their clients are able to learn such skills, which leaves the rest out of work.

About 200 out of the 900 clients in MINDS' sheltered workshops are unable to get suitable work which fits their level of skills and ability. At Bizlink, seven out of 10 of its clients have problems picking up new skills.

"Some clients cannot be trained because of their disabilities, medical conditions or educational background, so they have difficulty upgrading themselves to keep up with the changes in technology," said Mr Alvin Lim, Bizlink's chief executive.

"A significant number of moderate- to high-support-needs clients cannot perform such tasks and still require simpler, manual job assignments," MINDS' Mr Keh added.

Bizlink said it is fortunate that recently it managed to source for alternative, higher-paying manual jobs such as cleaning escalators at train stations or the facade of buildings. These pay about 15 per cent more than the usual cleaning jobs that involve cleaning toilets, for instance.

But for now, it is an uphill battle for organisations looking to replace lost contracts. In the meantime, Mr Sulaiman and others like him wait patiently.

Said Mr Lim: "They may not achieve the highest productivity but we hope companies do not just look at the short-term costs but rather consider the jobs they are creating and the lives they are supporting."

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