Syria entrenches the right to work for disabled

Under new legislation, all companies must hire at least 2% of their staff from the register of people with disabilities - or face fines.

DAMASCUS // Like many young Syrians, Amer Gharaja is unemployed and has struggled to find a job.

The 28-year-old faces an additional obstacle, however, suffering from a learning disability that has made his search for work more difficult.

"I'm looking for a simple job, even as a cleaner or something," he said. "From time to time I've had work but it's nothing regular and I really want to work."

A resident of Hama, 300km north of Damascus, he is hoping to benefit from a new government programme that aims to bring thousands of disabled people into the workforce.

Although unemployment is already high - some analysts estimate the rate at 20 per cent - the Syrian authorities this year passed a law requiring the private sector to hire disabled staff.

Under the legislation, passed in April, all companies must take at least two per cent of their employees from among those registered as disabled, or face fines equivalent to the salaries they would be paying those workers.

As the largest employer in the country, the government plans to hire four per cent of its total staff from the disabled register.

The move has been welcomed by civil rights campaigners and the country's disabled community, including Mr Gharaja. In October he made the trip from Hama to Damascus to sign on early with a government register designed to link disabled people with suitable vacancies in the public and private sectors.

"I'm very happy to have the chance to work," he said, explaining why he travelled to Damascus, rather than wait a few weeks for a registration opportunity in Hama. "I hope this will mean I can find the job I want."

There are no official records for the number of people with disabilities in Syria, although research is underway, and the number of people on the work register has not been made public. But activists here say disabilities are unusually prevalent because relatives marry relatives, health care is poor and malnutrition is rampant among the country's poor majority.

Steps have been taken to improve access to health services and nutrition. Further, couples from within families planning to marry are encouraged to take medical tests to screen for genetic disorders.

But these measures are not expected to be felt for generations, offering little comfort for those coping in a society that stigmatises the disabled. Some families are embarrassed by relatives who are disabled.

Asma al Assad, the wife of Syria's president, Bashar al Assad, has led a campaign to change perceptions of disabled people and promote them as a valuable national resource.

Syria is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and hosted this year's Special Olympics for the Middle East and North Africa.

The scheme to help disabled people find work - part of that broader effort - has been backed by major companies, although there are questions as to whether the legislation will be respected by firms and fully enforced.

"Will all private companies stick to the law? I think some will, and we certainly shall," said Kinan Halal, recruitment manager with multi-national telecommunications firm MTN, one of Syria's two mobile phone operators.

Mr Halal said the company had seven long-term members of staff with disabilities, adding that there were many "well qualified, highly motivated" disabled people looking for work in Syria. However, he said that most had the odds stacked against them, especially with jobs already scarce.

"It's not so much an issue that the disability itself puts people at a disadvantage. It's that because a person is disabled, they've probably not had the access to the same kind of education and training.They've not had the same chances," he said.

The database of disabled people seeking jobs is being managed by the General Establishment for Employment and EAmployee Development (GED), a government organisation tasked with matching potential staff to vacancies within companies nationwide.

"We won't be able to find jobs for everyone. Some people will have disabilities that make it very difficult for them to find work, but we will help as many as we can," said Ahmed Shbeeb, a GED manager. "It will be for companies to decide who they hire, but we will be able to give them the information they need to find workers."

While reaction to the programme has been broadly positive, some of those hoping to benefit are reserving judgement to see how it functions in practice.

"Four per cent of staff may sound like a fair proportion of government jobs but you still need wasta to be one of that four per cent," said Abdul Khadi Sourani, a 24-year-old physically disabled public relations manager from Damascus. "Wasta" is the Arabic word for connections to people in influential positions.

"I don't expect much because I don't have much wasta," he said. "But anything is worth a try."