It might be a cold 33 degrees celsius, but BDF’s latest work in Saudi Arabia is warming indeed

By George Selvanera


Business Disability Forum (BDF) Senior Disability Consultant Brendan Roach and myself have descended, again, on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) as part of a programme we are contributing to about improving KSA’s business disability confidence.

Jeddah Light (Jeddah Port Control Tower) is an active lighthouse in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. With a height of approximately 113 metres (371 ft) it has a credible claim to be the world's tallest lighthouse

Led by the Ministry of Labor, the KSA business disability confidence programme explicitly links to efforts to increase the participation of Saudi nationals in the workforce, dominated as it is by expatriate workers. This is an urgent priority for KSA given the public sector can no longer absorb the 200,000 young people that leave university every year; with many millions more young people expected to join the labour force in the coming years. Arab News reported in October 2013 that KSA has 9.2 million expatriate workers making it the fourth most popular destination for expatriate workers worldwide with sector after sector dominated by expatriates.

Saudisation requires companies to employ a minimum quota of local workers: 7% in building, 24% in retail, 50% in insurance and 90% in banking, for example. Companies who fail to comply, risk penalties such as bans on recruiting foreign workers, while good performers are rewarded with financial and administrative support, designed to compensate for the extra cost of employing Saudis, who earn twice as much as their foreign counterparts.

To support the ‘Saudisation’ programme, a system of ‘4 to 1’ is in place which counts every 1 disabled Saudi person in employment as 4 non-disabled Saudi persons in employment. The Government recognises that many companies have created a cadre of phantom employees: disabled people who are paid to stay at home while counting towards the quota. With approximately 400,000 people accessing the Saudi equivalent of jobseekers allowance reporting they have impairments, the current system to encourage employment of disabled people is not working.

We have had the pleasure of working with a senior advisor to the Minister for Labor and a budding version of BDF – Qaderoon which is about 10 months old – who, working under the direction of the Minister for Labor, recognise that such a system is neither sustainable or appropriate. Like us, they recognise, that business needs access to the best talent and that the best companies need to be competent in how they interact with disabled people as employees, candidates and customers.

As I am sure you can appreciate, the context of work could not be more different. We have been privy to some terrible stories about the work and life situation of disabled people. I am struck by how a deaf worker at a large conglomerate attended work every day, even while sick and during annual leave, because he thought that he would not get paid when absent. He could not afford to not get paid. As no one had ever communicated with their deaf colleague, the situation persisted for several years.

I am also struck, however, by the willingness of the small group of leading KSA companies that we have interacted with having an openness to a different path. As in the UK and elsewhere, the motivations for participation in the programme to encourage disability confidence are diverse. Some view improving outcomes for disabled people through the prism of corporate social responsibility, some see the business benefits of access to the best possible talent, others see a chance to be part of a vanguard leading a different approach and others, simply enough, just want to do the right thing by all people, including disabled people.

What we have been delighted to find is that irrespective of the motivation, several of the businesses we have interacted with have recognised that disability confidence requires a whole organisation approach. Just as the leading lights of disability-smart organisations in the UK apply the Disability Standard to measure and focus improvement in their disability performance across the whole business, there is the start of an openness in Saudi Arabian companies to do similar.

Brendan and I have been helping design and test a KSA Disability Confidence Index for driving improvements in business disability confidence across the last 10 months. We have worked closely with 7 companies particularly in testing the Index and it’s been brilliant to learn that since visits we undertook in June 2014, for example:

  • An air conditioning company that had committed to engaging disabled customers in product design has developed a remote control for Braille users. They also are undertaking improvements to the facilities accessibility of at least three of their sites.
  • A pharma distribution company has increased the employment of disabled employees by nearly 50% to 73 and plans to increase by a further 100% to 150 by the end of this calendar year. There continues to be a 100% retention rate for these employees.
  • The CEO of a conglomerate with multiple brands has been meeting informally with disabled staff to signal commitment and to better understand the needs and priorities of staff.

Our current trip to KSA involves delivery of a 5-day induction training for auditors (two of which represent companies whose UK equivalents are BDF Partners). These auditors will have a role in assessing evidence that companies submit using the KSA Disability Confidence Index.

We have been really pleased at the way in which many of the auditors have actively participated in the learning and offered their own personal experiences of dyslexia, living with a cousin that is hard of hearing, living with a grandmother with Alzheimers, having work colleagues with disabilities etc. and how this has influenced their understanding about what is most fundamental to driving change in outcomes for disabled people – the power of personal contact and personal experience.

They also have seen how an accessible recruitment process relies on the know-how to offer and make appropriate adjustments, IT departments improving the accessibility of online application systems, accessible premises that permit candidates with mobility impairments being able to attend interviews and subsequent work, capable line managers that know where they can access support and guidance to confidently interact with their disabled colleague etc. They have understood that a whole organisation approach to understanding disability is essential.

These auditors have also made clear to us that they see the transformation in business practice and disability confidence as requiring many years. This realism is heartening. Just as their understanding about the power of personal contact with disabled people operating at all levels – in business, at home, as leaders, as customers, as family members – is essential to the transformation.

Between Brendan and I, we have had 10 trips to the Kingdom and worked across Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam. At 33 degrees, this may well be the coldest weather we have experienced on our trips here, but it certainly is one of the most warming.

It’s just great to find that we are contributing to the beginnings of a different way for KSA business in how they interact with disabled people and where we are beginning to see the initial buds of positive change for business and disabled people. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, but it is beginning.

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