the wolf in sheeps clothing

June 14 | 2018

Not too long ago, someone from my network referred me an owner of a social enterprise that offers sheltered workshops for disabled students and other projects in some of my fields of expertise. The organization said that they were impressed by my portfolio, and after a few exchanges back and forth, I eventually was invited to a job interview. The conversation seemed to go well, until one of the interviewers asked me about my expectations of my visit. This came as a surprise, since that’s what job interviews are for, but I did make clear that I’m looking for employment, or project based work that would generate regular income. Towards the end, the interviewer revealed that they don’t have any capacities to hire me. Fair enough, but I started to wonder what the point of this job interview was. Much to my shock, the only thing they had to offer was to be in one of their sheltered workshop projects. Essentially, it would mean that I would be working for free and maybe one day in this or next life, one of their clients might have mercy to hire me on a subsidized contract (minimum wage only). I felt very misled and after I called the organization out on it, they claimed that it wasn’t clear enough that I’m actually looking for paid work, even though they were the ones who wrote “job interview” in the subject line. Holy shit… I’m normally a humble person, but with a degree in communication design and almost two decades of work experience, this was not what I expected to happen. How low could it get that people think I would be desperate enough to let myself to be exploited as free labor? So much for a “social enterprise”.

How can something like that be possible in a western country like the Netherlands, which is actually one of the more tolerant ones towards minorities? The truth is much more sinister and the cause of the problem is not only “evil” society. It’s widely known that the employment rates of people with disabilities are low, and EU countries have tried to implement policies to tackle the problem, with some being slightly more successful than others. In the Netherlands, there are plenty of rules and regulations, which are supposed to be providing a sense of “safety” for a widely spread risk-averse mindset among companies and institutions. In such mindset, hiring someone with a disability or health conditions is seen as a liability and a risk, so it’s not a coincidence that one of the policies is called “No-risk-policy”. But what does it mean for the company and especially the potential candidate? Basically, when a company hires someone with a disability, they can apply for a subsidy, where simply put, the company gets money and employees are paid minimum wage. The thing is, that companies could hire people on normal conditions, but many choose not to, since the policies “help” them to save money. This is why people with disabilities have such a hard time finding employment.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. An even larger number of people with disabilities in the Netherlands are either stuck on welfare or are “lucky” enough to have a partner who can support them financially. In order to improve the situation, there are several social enterprises throughout the country. They aim to help finding or provide people with disabilities work. This sounds great on the surface, but it’s anything but solving the problem. Since the organizations are nonprofit, they have very limited capacities to hire people and the ones they avoid to hire the most are the same ones they claim to be helping. Instead, almost their entire business runs on internships and sheltered workshop programs, unpaid. The irony, right? At the same time, they claim to help their participants to find jobs, but it’s mostly by companies opting for a subsidy and end the employment once it runs out, the vicious cycle repeats itself. Even though many disabled workers are capable of working full time, which would save the state/taxpayers money by getting people off welfare. At this point however, neither side has an interest in actual solution, the only incentive is to keep the status quo: companies can save money and can reduce the (real or imagined) risk and social enterprises have a justification to exist. All this at the expense of people with disabilities and other health conditions. This is certainly not what a so called “inclusive” society would look like.

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