By Dr Amar-Singh HSS
All over the world, people with disabilities experience discrimination at the workplace.
As such, many progressive nations have enacted legislation to address this issue.
It was thus disappointing to hear Human Resources Minister V Sivakumar, saying there was no such need in Malaysia because we had “very few cases involving workplace discrimination” and that “existing legal provisions are sufficient”.
Perhaps our minister has been misinformed or is unaware of the real situation. All of us are aware that discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion and disability is common in Malaysia.
Regarding workplace discrimination against people with disabilities, the lack of reports does not reflect the reality. A number of studies have shown that workplace discrimination against people with disabilities is a reality and widespread. Some examples include Khoo SL (2013), Lee MN and Narayanan (2018). Hence, the minister’s data of “eight cases” needs a major revision.
What is more distressing, and often poorly recognised, is that many persons with disabilities do not even get employed as they are rejected at the application phase or during the job interview, once the prospective employer discovers they are disabled.
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In a survey conducted by Vase.ai and Women’s Aid Organisation in 2020 (WAO), women with a permanent disability were told by their interviewer or recruiter that they should consider freelancing instead, as their disability was an issue. Hence, good discrimination legislation must always address this loophole in employment.
People with disabilities who manage to secure employment face significant and unresolved challenges at the workplace in terms of physical barriers at the workplace (mobility access) and unsupportive employment environments with little reasonable accommodation. As long as we do not have legislation to address this, people with disabilities will continue to struggle to maintain their employment status.
Although the government has a policy target that 1% of employees in the civil service should be people with disabilities, it was reported in 2021 that the current achievement was only 0.35%. This data alone shows the crisis faced by people with disabilities in getting employment in Malaysia.
More information and data can be obtained from the OKU Rights Matter website.
I hope the government will not deny that persons with disabilities continue to face significant discrimination in getting employment and being able to negotiate the workplace environment – physically and socially. Acknowledging the reality is the first step to putting in place remedial actions.
The recent amendments to the Employment Act [Employment (Amendment) Act 2021 – changes to the Employment Act 1955] have some anti-discrimination provisions. However, these provisions are vague and do not define discrimination and fail to specify disability status as protected. It is critical that we revise the Employment Act to include disability and a clear definition of discrimination.
In addition, Article 8 (2) of the Federal Constitution needs to be revised to expressly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of disability.
Finally, the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008, which is currently being amended, should have clear and strong provision for people with disabilities to have the right to work and employment in all sectors on an equal basis with those without disabilities.
The act should spell out what reasonable accommodation is required to be put in place by employers to facilitate the employment of people with disabilities and their pre-employment opportunities.
The Malaysia Madani (Civil Malaysia) concept speaks of respect, trust and compassion. Let us flesh out these principles – make them real – in the lives of people with disabilities in the country. Show us respect by acknowledging the truth of workplace discrimination. Give us compassion by facilitating our employment. And trust us that we can contribute significantly to build our country together.
Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS is a person with dyslexia, child-disability activist, adviser to the National Early Childhood Intervention Council, adviser to the National Family Support Group for Children and People with Special Needs, and member of The OKU Rights Matter Project