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The Dignity of Labor


Employees assembling gutter clamps at Employment Solutions for People with Disabilities in Pretoria, South Africa.  Credit: Phillip Koening, SAP AG.

Past the Pretoria Academic Hospital, the main road heads left, while a less-used lane curves to the right. Its tarmac hasn’t been repaired in a while and grass is sprouting through cracks. A sign announces we have arrived at Employment Solutions for People with Disabilities. 

A metal gate is opened. And then we are inside, pulling up to parking space across the lawn. My colleagues Nathalie Magnier (based in Levallois, France) and Phillip Koening (based in headquarters in Walldorf) and I have already met Ilze Meintjes, the managing director, and Surisa Nel, a board member who helps out pro bono with marketing and strategy. In fact, Ilze and Surisa have driven us here.

The campus exudes peace.  There seem to be no jacarandas here – at least none are in bloom. The surroundings are very green. We are told that the National Zoo lies just beyond. Apparently, on lucky days one can see the lions from here.  On the other side is the city mortuary.

Inside we can hear a low hum of activity.  Some 150 disabled people are employed by Employment Solutions. Many have been there for years. They come from as far away as Cullinan (known for its diamond mine) and Ga-Rankuwa, traveling two hours each way to work here. Another 800 are on the waiting list.

Ilze and Surisa give us a tour of the premises. We meet Christian, Ilze’s son, who is deaf. He is the resident computer whiz and, at this moment, is fixing something on his mother’s laptop. In a room down the corridor, several people are hard at work scanning barcodes from stacks of documents with an optical character reader. It’s a quiet repetitive process – pick up a thin sheaf of printed paper from a pile, place it under the reader, make sure the barcode has scanned and drop it on another pile. Again and again, the employees go through the cycle rhythmically. Ilze explains that they are scanning barcodes from contracts of cell phones that have been delivered. The work is there thanks to VodaCom, a large wireless provider. Every morning, VodaCom delivers a stack of contracts to be scanned; the next morning, the company’s agent picks it up.

Employment Solutions employs disabled people to do those jobs that cannot be easily mechanized in a factory environment. Typically, they are seen as labor-intensive chores. Yet these are often perfect for the disabled. In the case of the barcode scanners, they are all deaf. They would have found it difficult to work in a typical workplace, but here they function effectively.

In the next room, three more deaf employees are scanning documents for a company’s archives. Another is shredding them manually. The shredder has broken down, and there is no money to buy a new one.  (Such is the reality of NGOs in South Africa today.)

We make our way to other rooms. The work spans a range of activities – and a range of disabilities.  Some people are cutting and bundling galvanized pipes to specifications; others are making clamps for gutters; yet others are creating leather gear knob covers for cars. There is a wheelchair repair unit, a sewing unit, a pottery and crafts unit. One person is using a 30-year-old machine to make clamps for automobile silencers.

Everyone looks happy. They wave at us and say hello. They smile. They wave again. Isabel, one of the managers, makes her way around the factory floor in a motorized wheelchair, making sure everything is going all right. She comes over to introduce herself.

Employment Solutions grew out of a crafts store for a home for the disabled. Ilze is trained as a social worker and her goal all along has been to make Employment Solutions self-sufficient, to use the revenue raised by selling services to pay for operations.  It worked for a number of years, but is not working today. The global economic slowdown has hurt her organizations. There are fewer contracts, and even government subsidies have shrunk. (Besides, one government department hasn’t paid her for a year.)

But not all is bad news. Employment Solutions has opened two stores to sell crafts produced by disabled and they are doing quite well. We go to visit the store that is located in an upscale part of Pretoria, near the University of Pretoria. It sells a line of clothing branded “Zoetlief Lein”.

Afterwards, we have lunch. We learn about the challenges of helping the disabled. In many poor African families, people with disabilities were beaten and often hidden away. Even if they were not physically abused, they were not educated or given opportunities.

“People with disabilities can work, not just sit around the house,” Ilze says.

Through the day, the dignity and humanity of the disabled, like her  son, come up again and again in the conversation.  Though these people are disabled, they are not irreversibly downtrodden; they could still make the future with persistence and help – which is what Ilze and her staff are there to provide.

Things have changed considerably in South Africa in recent years for those with minor disabilities, Ilze says. They can go to mainstream schools, “be mainstreamed”. They get some jobs opportunities. There is now a government agency looking out for the disabled. When it comes to rules and laws, South Africa is following trends similar to those in European countries and the United States.

But there is still a gap.

“There are dreams and then there are people who cannot get to those dreams,” she says. “We are here for those people.”

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