More firms in Singapore hiring people with disabilities

Autism Resource Centre clients (from left) Chia Yu Xuan, Hardy Jaafar, Fan Chang Hong, Caleb Lim, Marcus Lim and Nicholas Neo work at Starbucks. The global coffee chain is among a growing list of companies, including fashion retailer Uniqlo, that are
Autism Resource Centre clients (from left) Chia Yu Xuan, Hardy Jaafar, Fan Chang Hong, Caleb Lim, Marcus Lim and Nicholas Neo work at Starbucks. The global coffee chain is among a growing list of companies, including fashion retailer Uniqlo, that are hiring workers with disabilities. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

Tight labour market proving to be a boon for them; govt subsidies also help

More companies are opening their doors to employees with disabilities in recent years.

About 2,000 employers who hired 3,200 disabled workers in the first six months of 2012 received wage subsidies, under a government fund set up to encourage the hiring of older and disabled workers.

As at December last year, more than 4,500 employers received the subsidies for hiring 5,700 disabled workers.

They benefit from the Special Employment Credit scheme, in which the Government pays up to 16 per cent of the salary of workers with physical or intellectual disabilities, for those earning up to $4,000 a month.

Before 2012, the scheme covered only employers hiring workers above 50 years old and earning up to $4,000 a month.

Some voluntary welfare organisations catering to the disabled are also seeing more companies keen to hire their clients.

The Association for Persons with Special Needs (APSN) had 35 companies hiring its clients last year, up from 25 the year before.

The number of companies hiring clients of the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) grew from four in 2012, to nine last year.

Mrs Michelle Liau, principal of APSN Delta Senior School, said more companies are aware of the work capabilities of the disabled.

"Many employers are seeing persons with disabilities as valuable employees. Hiring them helps create a more inclusive work environment for all staff, and improve the overall perception of the company," she said.

ARC president Denise Phua said more employers are willing to employ the disabled due to the tight labour market, but added that training and support for the disabled at work were important.

"The challenge is to find an employer who's willing to put in the extra mile to modify the work systems and provide support, not just on a one-time basis, but on an ongoing basis," said Ms Phua, who is also an MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC.

Earlier this week, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat had announced the start, later this year, of a new school-to-work transition programme that will give students with special needs more support when they move on to work.

The plan is to have "more customised training pathways" for students' diverse needs, he said.

The programme will begin in a student's final year of school and continue after he starts work.

Fashion retailer Uniqlo and global coffee chain Starbucks are among those that have joined the growing list of companies that hire disabled workers here.

Uniqlo started hiring intellectually disabled employees in 2012, and has 20 such workers in its 16 outlets here.

Hiring the disabled helps it fulfil its corporate social responsibility, said its spokesman. Other staff also benefit as they learn to have a better understanding of working with the disabled, he said.

Starbucks hired six clients from ARC for its 100th store here, which opened at the Fullerton Waterboat House two months ago. It has committed to have ARC clients form at least 25 per cent of the staff at the store.

Mr Jeff Hansberry, president of Starbucks China and Asia Pacific, said hiring the disabled is in line with the company's values of "embracing diversity and providing a rewarding work environment to people of all backgrounds".

While some modifications to the workplace had to be made, such as having flipcharts of drink recipes for reference, the ARC clients "have a great attention to detail and are very accurate in preparing beverages", said Ms Ruth Yam, director of marketing and category at Starbucks Singapore.

Mr Marcus Lim, 23, an ARC client, said his six months of job training before being hired as a Starbucks barista was important.

Learning how to prepare coffee was difficult, but picking up soft skills was even harder "because we need to meet customers' different expectations", he said.

But he is thankful for the job opportunity. "I get to meet a lot of people and make new friends."

goyshiyi@sph.com.sg