“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
As I reflect on Mahatma Gandhi’s words this Human Rights Month, I cannot help but feel overwhelming despair and frustration at where we find ourselves today, almost 27 years into post-apartheid South Africa. I have always felt a deep sense of duty at the plight of too many people in our country who continue to live in poverty and hopelessness and rather naively, I assumed that the majority in society shared my sentiments.
My journey in trying to make a difference began in 1997 when I started working at Access College, an organisation that provided entry-level work training to people with disabilities. Later in 2002, I went on to start Progression in order to embrace a broader focus on job creation and sustainability.
In those early days, before the launch of B-BBEE, employers were motivated to invest in skills development and employment for people with disabilities in order to uplift this target group and bring about meaningful transformation within society. However, B-BBEE introduced a host of incentives to business, shifting the focus from stimulus and leading to companies now frantically trying to tick every box and gain as many points on their BEE scorecard as possible, at all costs.
When Progression first started implementing learnerships for people with disabilities, our placement rate into permanent employment for our learners averaged 60% within six months of the end of our programmes. Today, almost 20 years since the introduction of BEE, that rate has dropped to approximately 5%, as the majority of employers no longer take learners on permanently at the end of the programme, but instead opt to continuously place the same learners onto a succession of learnerships, with no hopes of a permanent job.
This has resulted in many learners being “recycled” for years through a string of learnerships (most of these programes are unrelated and not even in the same field of study) only to be left disappointed and unemployed again at the end of the process. Gone are the days when companies trained and employed people with disabilities, motivated by the desire to do the right thing. Today the overriding priority is scorecard points, with little to no regard for the interests of the learner.
My many years of experience in this field have left me feeling entirely disillusioned by the detrimental effect that B-BBEE legislation has had on the full-time employment of people with disabilities. In fact, in my view the implementation of BEE has created far greater challenges in general. Previously, the employment of people with disabilities was not linked to quotas and employers were driven by moral and ethical imperatives, which underscored the value of investing in this target group and making a real difference. However, today’s BEE-imposed targets detract from the real benefits of these initiatives and are largely viewed as a “grudge tax”.
The current incentives have also created a fertile breeding ground for dishonesty and corruption. An extremely disturbing trend is the increasing number of fake doctors’ letters being submitted to Progression by desperate candidates, pretending to have a disability, in order to qualify for our learnership programmes. Currently about 35% of the medical verifications that Progression receives from potential learners turn out to be fraudulent.
Many training providers have also jumped on the BEE bandwagon and are promising their clients “easy” solutions to achieving their BEE targets by implementing learnerships for people with disabilities. However, in many cases, these providers have little or no experience in dealing with disability and do not abide by the legislative guidelines set down to protect people with disabilities. By and large, companies are unaware of (or completely disregard) the various regulations which provide standards and recommendations around issues such as reasonable accommodation, non-disclosure and confidentiality, amongst others.
As an example, at Progression we regularly receive requests from employers to disclose the nature of our candidates’ disabilities prior to recruitment and most service providers are happy to share this information, even though it is not in line with best practice and infringes on the candidates’ right to protection of their privacy under the Protection of Personal Information Act as well as their right to not disclose their disability according to the Employment Equity Act and the Code of Good Practice on Employment of People with Disabilities.
Even more worrying is the unethical practice (by some well-known training companies in the industry) of providing no workplace experience at all (not even in a simulated environment) during the programme, leaving the learners with a worthless qualification with no practical value. This ongoing exploitation of people with disabilities in the interests of compliance causes further damage to the pride and self-esteem of individuals within a target group that already faces consistent stigma and discrimination. We have even been requested by one employer to prepare their learners to lie to the BEE verification agent on their behalf.
Over the years, I have also observed a significant change in learners’ attitudes – in the early days, nobody missed an interview without a very good reason and attendance at work and training was close to 100%. Sadly, today learner non-attendance is a daily frustration and our numbers show that one in four candidates don’t even bother to arrive for their interview. My sense is that the lack of commitment or consideration displayed by business towards learners has resulted in complete apathy and indifference on the part of the latter. For the learners, it is no longer about gaining access to the open labour market or building a career, but more about collecting a stipend at the end of each month.
As a once-hopeful social entrepreneur with a desire to change the world (and especially our beautiful country) the current situation has left me with more questions than answers. Almost 20 years of BEE has placed us in this quagmire, will it take another 20 years to get us out of this mess, if that is even possible? Do we continue down this road only to cause even greater damage to our economy and our people? Have we gone too far down the BEE rabbit hole to find our way back to doing the right thing and implementing meaningful solutions that make a real difference in peoples’ lives?
We will continue to do our best under poor conditions, in a moral landscape that no longer values our fellow citizens.