JAYE Santos Manlolo would always beam at customers of Southstar Drug’s Visayas Ave. branch. “Good morning. Welcome to Southstar Drug,” she’d say with a welcoming smile. If you are lucky, you’d even get a hug from her. She is a regular employee of the drug store, but in so many ways, a special one. And she wears her person-with-disability pin proudly: Manlolo has Down syndrome.
“I like my job. I like greeting our customers,” the 24-year-old Manlolo said, even as she confided that working for a drug store was not her dream job.
“I dreamt of being a policewoman when I was a kid,” she said. “Now, I just wear the cap of our security guard sometimes. But like a policewoman, I still get to help people.”
Manlolo joined Southstar Drug in March 2017, a few months after the drug store partnered with Unilab Foundation for Project Inclusion, an initiative that aims to broaden the employment landscape of PWDs in the Philippines.
Part of the project Unilab Foundation launched in 2013 is the setting up of website, daretohiremenow.com, to enable PWDs to promote their skills, capabilities and work preferences to find gainful employment. The website matches the specific skills of PWDs with the job requirements of partner-employers, which have reached 22 businesses to date.
“We wanted to educate people that hiring PWDs is a good business move. We wanted to change the story from one of charity, which is limited and can suffer from donor-fatigue, to that of a good business practice, which can be replicated,” said Unilab Foundation project manager Grant Javier.
“Giving PWDs gainful employment is good for the PWD because it promotes continuous development for them; it is good for their co-workers because they become more aware of PWD issues and concerns; and ultimately, it is good for business because PWD employees are loyal and they get the job done,” Javier added.
Southstar Drug training manager Christine Pambuan agrees: “Tasks that would normally take a month, they can do it immediately, and with fewer errors because they’re very conscientious. And you also have that sense of confidence that they will not do anything to mess up the job.”
Most of the 24 PWDs hired by the drug store work on the front line, dealing with customers, and Pambuan said the interactions have not only been positive but have also yielded results.
“We are a drug store. Our customers don’t come in to shop—they come to us because they are going through some difficulty because they are sick, so they are not in a good mood. Persons with Down syndrome, by nature, are sweet so they tend to attract the customers more. Our customers end up wanting to come back because the PWDs are there,” Pambuan said.
The job-matching process, however, is no walk in the park for PWD applicants as they are screened like all other regular employees.
“They are special, but there is no special treatment for them. There may be reasonable accommodation, like increasing the font size, but the skills test is the same because we do not want employers to be traumatized with mismatched job applications as these might discourage them from hiring more PWDs in the future. We do not lower the standard—we just make it accessible,” Javier said.
Since the website was launched, Unilab Foundation has already screened 1,250 applications, of which 508 have been given “improved access,” meaning their papers have already been forwarded to potential employers. However, only 180, including Manolo, have been successfully hired.
“180 sounds small, a little over 10 percent only of the total applicants. But considering where we came from, which is zero, that is already a major accomplishment for us,” he added.
According to Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, about 1.4 million Filipinos or less than 2 percent of the population have disability. At least 51 percent of Filipino PWDs are male. More importantly, 60 percent of the total number of PWDs in the country are between 15 to 64 years old—within the working age.
The Labor department’s data, however, is based on the 2010 population census, and Javier said the most recent estimate puts the number of PWDs anywhere between 10 to 15 million. “The official data is low because not all PWDs have themselves registered.”
In 2017, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific said there are about 690 million men, women and children in Asia and the Pacific who have some form of disabilities. That means one in every six persons in the region are PWDs, yet they remain to be one of the most marginalized groups in society.
Republic Act No. 10524, which expanded the positions reserved for PWDs, require government agencies to allot at least 1 percent of their regular and non-regular positions for PWDs. Private corporations, on the other hand, who employ at least 100 employees are not required but are encouraged to reserve at least 1 percent of all positions for PWDs.
“At the Labor department, we have lawyers on wheelchairs. We observe the requirement, not just because it is in the law but because we fully support efforts to hire PWDs and give them equal access,” Bello said.
Part of government efforts to support PWDs is through trainings conducted by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority. Data from Tesda showed that in 2015, a total of 1,817 PWDs—1,047 female and 770 male – underwent training for various qualifications, including masonry, computer hardware servicing, bread making, massage therapy, and bar tending, among others.
But Javier stressed that certifications make little difference when potential employers are unwilling to hire PWDs to begin with.
“There has to be structural and cultural changes. Some of our applicants have at least 4 certifications from Tesda. Some of them are graduates of the University of the Philippines and other premier schools. But they cannot get a job. It is heartbreaking because some of them would even ask us if they can be hired as janitors instead just to get a job,” he said.
“Some companies are afraid of their capability to absorb PWD employees. Sometimes the process to educate them takes longer than the process to train our PWD job applicants. You fear what you don’t understand,” Javier added.
For Southstar Drug’s Pambuan, employees like Manlolo have shown the upside of hiring PWDs.
“Definitely we want to hire more. For 2018, while I don’t have the exact numbers yet, but we really see the good in hiring more PWDs. What we see in the future is hopefully that we get to influence our sister companies in Robinsons Retail] to see the merit as well,” Pambuan said.
This gives much hope to Javier, who goes home to a happy family that includes a nine-year-old son with autism. “I always think of him, and hope that the future will be better for children like him.”
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