For local urban farming company MEOD, the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be both a blessing and a challenge. While demand for its fresh and sustainable produce increased, manpower shortage posed significant challenges for MEOD in its bid to seize opportunities in the emerging agri-tech sector.
To ramp up its production capacity, the company broadened its manpower search to include hiring persons with disabilities. This timely opportunity arose when local disability-focused charity SPD reached out to MEOD to broach the idea of hiring persons with disabilities at its one-hectare farm in Kranji.
“We were planning to ramp up our hiring during the pandemic and when we learnt about inclusive hiring, that changed our mindset towards recruitment and expanded our manpower options. We have since worked with SPD to hire four new employees with physical disabilities,” said Mr Daniel Lua, MEOD’s sales and marketing manager.
SPD has an Intensive Supported Employment Programme (ISEP), which aims to train and help persons with disabilities, who may need a longer training runway, transit into open employment through a supportive work environment and intensive training.
Together, MEOD and SPD planned the job roles for the employees that would come through the ISEP. The employees would be involved in processing and packaging as these tasks do not involve heavy lifting and machinery. After the vegetables are harvested, they would sort and do quality checks on the vegetables before packaging and labelling them.
MEOD hired its first employee with disability in June last year — Mr Nithyaseelan N, 66, a former bus captain. After undergoing a right leg amputation in 2016, he could no longer drive. He approached SPD to help him find a suitable job and was eventually emplaced in the role of a vegetable packer at MEOD where he inspects every leaf and stem for discolouration and spots, five times a week, for seven hours each day.
Though uncertain about the job at first as he had no prior experience working in a vegetable farm, more than a year into the job, Mr Nithyaseelan finds it a joy working at MEOD.
As it was the first time that MEOD was employing people with disabilities, Mr Lua had some initial doubts, but these were quickly dispelled as he witnessed the good performance and positivity of these employees.
“Initially, we were concerned about their mobility and dependency. However, they have shown us that they are actually very independent and can work with little supervision once they are familiar with the job,” said Mr Lua.
“Some employers may be fearful due to misconceptions or worries as they do not know how to manage an employee with a disability. However, the truth is that with appropriate support and job accommodation, employees with disabilities can be a valuable support for businesses,” said Ms Lee Hui Lin, SPD’s assistant director who oversees its employment support services.
New possibilities for employers
Extending support to enable employers in Singapore to hire more individuals with disabilities is important.
One organisation that plays an active role in this area is SG Enable. It focuses on training individuals with disabilities for better employability and advocating for their employment. It also administers government initiatives, funding, and schemes such as the Open Door Programme.
As one of SG Enable’s employment support partners, SPD supports employers throughout the hiring process to achieve a positive and sustainable employment outcome for the employees and their employers.
Generally, the SPD team will first determine the employers’ business needs, and then assess the employee’s work readiness and career aspirations. Prior to work commencement, the team will also perform interventions such as assistive technology accommodations, task analysis, site assessment or job redesign, if needed.
“The ultimate goal is to provide a solution that can help employers to meet their manpower needs, while helping persons with disabilities succeed in their job. For instance, in some cases and where necessary, an operations supervisor will be placed at the work site at no cost to the employer,” said Ms Lee.
After the successful placement of their clients, SPD will continue to provide job coaching as well as onsite support and training to ensure employment sustainability. Employers will also be engaged through public education programmes that cover topics such as working with persons with disabilities, workplace modifications, workplace accessibility, and job accommodation.
As part of the onboarding process, the team at MEOD also briefed its employees to help them understand how best to work with their new colleagues and to treat them with respect. As the farming company continues its expansion plans, Mr Lua is looking to hire more persons with disabilities.
“Our partnership with SPD has been excellent. They displayed a strong ability to understand our requirements and recommend suitable candidates for the roles that we need. On top of that, the team also does a very detailed on-site assessment to ensure the safety for their clients. The SPD team is very professional, and we hope to continue to build a long-term partnership with SPD,” said Mr Lua.
Encouraging other companies to keep an open mind when it comes to inclusive hiring, Mr Lua added, “Give these employees and yourself a chance. They may have a lot more to offer despite their disabilities.”
“Employment is not just about earning an income. It offers individuals a sense of dignity knowing that we are able to exercise our talents and achieve our life goals, and for persons with disabilities, employment is also a means to being more self-reliant and socially connected,” said Ms Lee.
When employers commit to hiring more inclusively, it is not only a spirit of generosity or compassion on the side of the company. More broadly, it also demonstrates that we, as a society, is open to building a more progressive and inclusive community. This paves the way for other vulnerable groups such as homeless individuals or single mothers to secure employment as well.
SPD has also been working to extend the ISEP to other companies in the F&B sector. Another company, N&N Agriculture, has engaged four clients in packing products since May this year.
Besides ISEP, SPD currently offers a variety of employment options. They include in-house logistics, packing and digital scanning services, making and selling of leather crafted corporate gifts and other artisan products such as hand-bound books at https://shop.spd.org.sg, employment and internship support services and return to work programmes after rehabilitation.
For more information about SPD’s Intensive Supported Employment Programme (ISEP), please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Companies that require support in inclusive hiring or to enhance their disability inclusion policies may approach SG Enable.