It is hard to think of a time in history when businesses globally have had to adapt and restructure as rapidly as they have during the current pandemic. The closest comparable period may be post-World War II, when thousands of soldiers and civilians living with long term injuries were trying, and failing, to access work. At that time, many countries introduced quota systems which required businesses to employ a certain proportion of people with disabilities.
Now we once again stand at a crossroads in terms of building a more diverse workforce. How will countries reinvent themselves to ensure nobody is excluded from accessing work? Could businesses take up the mantle, when they are already facilitating huge changes? How can they introduce a more inclusive approach to employment?
If we assume they will, given the clear benefits, let us look towards the future of diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace in Thailand and globally.
The importance of the ripple effect
According to Max Simpson, Steps with Theera co-founder, what the future holds, should be "Ultimately, the mission is for us to be out of a job."
Not necessarily the words every employee wants to hear! Luckily, we are very familiar with the sentiment behind Max's words.
One of Steps with Theera's key aims is to remove the stigma associated with learning differences and create working environments where anyone can thrive.
That's what Max is talking about. Right now, many employers look at people with learning differences and see barriers. Steps with Theera is here to remove those barriers. The day employers look at people with learning differences and see nothing but potential, the work of Steps with Theera is done. The key to reaching this point is visibility, as Max explains:
"Our theory of change works on the concept that every customer who engages with us, either for products or services, sees our community being capable and working, and changes their perceptions. They may talk to their friends and family about what we do and so on. Bigger than that, an employer or business owner may interact and decide they want to explore being an inclusive employer."
The more businesses take this step, the greater the ripple effect. There have already been some groundbreaking firsts for Thailand in terms of visibility, including a collaboration between Special Olympics Thailand and the major Japanese clothes retailer Uniqlo which placed disabled athletes in customer facing roles across Thailand. Elsewhere, PTT runs Cafe Amazon for Chance hiring people with disabilities into barista roles.
Tech and grants
It's not just the workforce which has been shaken up by Covid-19, it's the workplace. Businesses have created a more inclusive environment simply by enabling a culture of remote working, as reported by the World Economic Forum. If workers with specific needs are in control of the space they work in, and the tech they use – for example screenreaders - it could reduce pressure on businesses in terms of the level of workplace adaptation needed.
Rob Candelino, CEO/General Manager of Unilever Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Singapore, agrees:
"As we accelerate our transition into more digitised, flexible, and remote ways of working, many of those barriers that have held people with disabilities back will crumble. For the first time in history, we have the chance to fully unleash the potential of this large and talented population and the unfair and inaccurate stigmas that accompany them."
Tech innovations may also help businesses meet recruitment challenges related to diversity. Platforms like Proabled use skill-matching to connect employers with people with disabilities across the Middle East. Another app aimed at removing barriers to employment for young people is UK based Connectr. They empower candidates by providing digital mentors and a personalised experience, thus allowing for the spectrum of different needs and abilities that candidates may have. With investors in Asia now specifically targeting such projects – for example the Disability Impact Fund – it may not be long before we're seeing similar products launched in Thailand.
Looking to leadership
Prominent business leaders are being urged to engage more with inclusion such as through the "Valuable 500" movement, which aims to recruit 500 corporations to help unlock the potential of the 1.3 billion people living with disabilities across the world.
Does this willingness to diversify play out among Thailand's business leaders? "Unilever is deeply committed to inclusivity in all its forms such as gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and indeed for those with different abilities or as we call it, 'diff-abilities'. In a post-Covid world we believe we will see significantly more opportunities being unlocked for people who were previously excluded because of physical or developmental differences" , according to Rob Candelino.
Phuree Smittinet, Project Manager of Café Amazon for Chance, said: " We have opened nine cafés and employ 62 staff, with over half coming from disadvantaged groups, including those who are deaf and autistic. These experimental cafés have taught me that by providing equitable jobs with advancement opportunities to all our staff, and a little more effort to accommodate operational changes, our customers can enjoy the same experience as they would at other cafés, and we can run our business sustainably. To me, this is the future of all business."
Avoid taking steps backwards – the impact of Covid-19
Optimism like this from Unilever and Cafe Amazon is encouraging. But now is not the time for complacency as far as Max Simpson is concerned:
"Prior to COVID, I would have said we were making good progress in Thailand, and globally, in creating more partnerships with employers, better training with industry appropriate skills, and creating awareness."
"Now I fear we will be set back as job opportunities and security for the majority are impacted. We saw all of our graduates lose their jobs when COVID hit and only a small percentage have been included in the future plans of their organisations."
Rising to the challenge
It is difficult to accept that progress made towards diversity in the workplace could be lost, especially when we know it creates happier and more profitable working environments. Economic uncertainty does not need to stop businesses thinking about inclusivity.
Government could hold a key role in encouraging them. In the first article of this series, we outlined some issues with the quotas set out in the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons Act (1991). We now ask once more whether it's time, while the business world is faced with unavoidable change, for this quota system to be phased out in favour of more innovative schemes to create equal opportunities in Thailand.
Ultimately, the future we should be looking to is one in which those who don't match some rudimentary set of characteristics are no longer categorised, and treated as 'different'. A future where across society, a range of needs, values and abilities are represented and catered to as standard.
This time of crisis could be reframed as an opportunity to steer us towards this future. It remains to be seen whether businesses will act upon it.
Author: Tanya Perdikou, Consultant, Steps with Theera, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Series Editor: Christopher F. Bruton, Executive Director, Dataconsult Ltd, email@example.com. Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides seminars and extensive documentation to update business on future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.
About Steps With Theera
Steps with Theera is a social enterprise which runs vocational training centres, coffee shops and zero waste shops in Bangkok and Phuket for young adults (some of whom have learning differences), to gain the skills they need to access a fulfilling career. We work with business partners to transition our graduates into sustainable employment.