How Germany violates conventions on disability rights | Germany| Information and in-depth reporting from Berlin and past | DW
It is a bright, sunny day on the Westhafener Canal, an industrial area in Berlin with factories and cranes towering overhead on all sides. It’s the end of the working day in a seven-story concrete building. Employees wearing masks pour out of the house, are assisted by employees in safety vests on board minibuses or go to the nearby train station.
This is a sheltered workshop where all employees have some form of mental or physical disability.
These workshops have existed in some form in Germany for over 50 years. But this month the European Union adopted a new disability strategy calling for the workshops to end.
Berlin’s largest workshop was in operation on a reduced scale during the pandemic
More than a job
“A whole spectrum of people work here, from people with learning difficulties to people with severe physical disabilities,” said managing director Dirk Gerstle in a spacious, sun-drenched room on the canal that serves as the facility’s art workshop.
With around 1,600 employees, the BWB workshop is the largest in Berlin and one of more than 3,000 in Germany, which employs around 320,000 people.
Employees take on a wide range of tasks, from crafting, metalworking, woodworking to packaging confectionery and administrative tasks tailored to their experience and skills.
Responsibility for the care and rehabilitation of employees is built into the mandate of the workshop, said Gerstle. The social aspect of their daily life, as well as the psychological and physical support, are as important as the work they do. Gerstle described the employees as a “community”.
Germany violates the UN Convention
Gerstle admits that the workshops are not “inclusive” spaces – they naturally separate people with disabilities from the rest of the workforce. This violates the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Germany ratified in 2008. Article 27 obliges the signatories to “encourage people with disabilities to gain work experience in the open labor market”.
By not banning the workshops, “the EU member states are still not fulfilling their obligations,” said Katrin Langensiepen, a German Greens and member of the European Parliament who was involved in drawing up the bloc’s new disability strategy Explanation.
Langensiepen, who was elected to the European Parliament as the first woman with a visible disability, is the author of a report calling for sheltered workshops to be phased out. Their report, adopted by a large majority in Strasbourg last week, called for EU Member States “to ensure that sheltered workshops are limited to a temporary option for people with disabilities in their working life cycle [and] Accelerating deinstitutionalization. “
“The European Parliament has sent a clear signal against the segregation of people with disabilities,” said Langensiepen in her statement. “Instead of promoting old systems that make people with disabilities invisible, we are committed to strengthening social alternatives in which people with and without disabilities work together.”
Langensiepen is the first woman with a visible disability to sit in the European Parliament
No “temporary period” for most
According to the current German model, the main purpose of sheltered workshops is to integrate people with disabilities into other professions. In fact, however, less than 1% or humans make this transition. In a typical year at BWB, according to Gerstle, 10 employees could move to other jobs, or around 0.6% of his workforce.
One obstacle is the fact that the workshops have to be run as a for-profit company. This means that economic goals must be achieved in order to pay employees and to exist within the legal framework.
Langensiepen said this meant that “workshops have no interest in letting the best workers move on”. The most productive workers in the workshops may be those who are best prepared for integration into the primary labor market, but they are also often the ones whose work the workshops miss the most.
Gerstle said some employees – “but not a majority” – were motivated by this factual approach. He has seen cases where people focused on profits did not encourage employees to spread their wings and leave the shop for better paying jobs.
Employees earn pocket money
The other harsh criticism of the current system is how little employees earn. Anne Gersdorff, who works for the disability rights NGO Sozialhelden (Social Heroes), described her income as “pocket money”.
The income varies between the workshops, but is usually € 1 per hour – well below the statutory minimum wage in Germany, which is currently € 9.35 per hour.
The federal working group for workshops has called for an increase in this hourly wage, but also wrote in a statement to DW that comparisons with the minimum wage are not clear.
“This income is supplemented by a publicly funded job promotion allowance. Working in workshops is not directly comparable to full-time employment, as the workshop offers other services such as occupational therapy and physiotherapy, speech therapy, and sports and cultural activities that employees can also use during working hours “said the working group.
“In addition, people with disabilities who have no other income besides the workshop salary receive state support for the cost of living – e.g. subsidies for rent payments, care services, pensions for reduced earning capacity and support for the basic income,” the statement said .
Gersdorff and other activists say this misses the point: people with disabilities should be able to earn wages that are comparable to other workers and not be forced to rely on sheltered workshops.
“People with disabilities who want to follow individual integrative paths have bureaucratic obstacles in their way when they try their luck in the open job market,” she said at a press conference.
Employees in sheltered workshops in Germany earn less than the minimum wage
It’s a matter of decision
Despite the UN Convention and the new EU strategy, German policy has not changed: According to the government, workshops should remain one of several options for employing people with disabilities. Investments in other options were made under a Participation Act that came into force in 2018 and will be introduced gradually until 2023. New “budgets” for jobs and apprenticeships are intended to improve the opportunities for people with disabilities to enter the open labor market.
When presenting the new budget, the Commission for People with Disabilities included workshops in the future plan: “All people with disabilities who are entitled to employment in a workshop for people with disabilities are eligible [for the budgets for work and apprenticeship]. However, the right to return to the workshop is possible at any time. “
According to Langensiepen, sheltered workshops could be a good option for some workers – but not in their current form.
“If some of the people who work in the workshops are happy there and want to stay in this community, that should be allowed, but they should actually be employed as part of the workforce,” she said.
As long as workers in sheltered workshops are not treated in the same way as workers in the primary labor market, Germany will not meet its obligations under international treaties – and its responsibility towards people with disabilities.
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