What Keeps Society At Large From Making Employment Truly Inclusive?

A panel of researchers and industry experts discuss the non-inclusion of minority identities in global labour markets and the steps needed to implement inclusive employment programmes.

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The inaugural edition of the xSDG UnConference was hosted by Belongg in collaboration with Dalberg, J-PAL South Asia, and Breakthrough India. It was held from August 18 – 31, 2021. Bringing together the global community of academics, development professionals, practitioners and people interested in themes of diversity and inclusion, each session at the UnConference offered diverse and nuanced insights on topics ranging from inclusive , education, urban planning and employment to various other aspects of an intersectional approach to sustainable development. Read the transcript from the previous session on building inclusivity in global cities here.

Livelihood and skill development programs run by the public and development sector actors aim to counter the growing problem of unemployment across the world. However, enrolment in and benefits from these programmes are not equally shared by all people. 

As an illustration, according to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, 78% of the total workforce in Nepal came from only five ethnic groups (while Nepal has 102 ethnic groups according to census data).

Gender, sexuality and disability are also bases for significantly varying outcomes. Until livelihoods and employment programmes directly tackle diversity issues, workforces will also struggle with a lack of diversity and millions of people within certain identities will continue to miss out on opportunities to improve their incomes and escape the poverty trap.

What is the existing data around identity-specific enrolment in livelihood and skill development programs? How can this be improved upon? What steps can the SDG ecosystem take to create truly inclusive livelihood and skill training programs globally? What sources of funding, including government sources, philanthropic capital and commercial financing, can help in scaling such models?

A five-member panel comprising Javaid Khan, an assistant professor at the University of Kashmir; Arman Ali, executive director at the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP); Papa Amadou Sarr, the delegate-general for entrepreneurship at the Office of the President of the Republic of Senegal; Maha Keramane, head of social business at BNP Paribas and Ann Hendrix-Jenkins, senior advisor at Tostan, took part in a session at the xSDG UnConference to tackle these questions.

The session was moderated by Afua Sarkodie, a partner with Dalberg Advisors.

The following is a transcript of the session. Questions and responses have been edited lightly for style and clarity.

Afua Sarkodie: Starting with a quick recap of the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth is the SDG which aims to promote sustained and inclusive economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. 

Achieving that goal requires a transformation of systems, from education to employment, to prepare, place and support people into decent productive employment. Thus, it requires policymakers, practitioners and employers to think about what the systemic barriers to employment are and how to address them?

Professor Khan, can you paint us a picture of how the exclusion of certain groups manifests when it comes to labour markets in employment?

Also read: Interview | Bhargavi Davar on a Value System for Inclusive Educational Spaces

Javaid Khan: Using exclusion and non-inclusion interchangeably, we see a great deal of ‘othering’ in the labour markets, as is also evident in socio-economic and political spaces across the globe. This is not a Global South phenomenon and is more pronounced in the Global North and Europe. 

The first non-inclusion is in terms of gender. In 2019, the global female labour force participation rate was 47% as opposed to 74% for men. This was more pronounced in North Africa and Arab states. Women have made inroads into the labour market due to their higher educational attainment than men, such as in the Caribbean and Latin America, however, when it comes to the mean differential, as far as their per-hour wages are concerned, women are earning 17% less than men. 

The second is in terms of age. In the labour market, 267 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are neither in educational or training institutions nor in the labour market. They are literally ‘missing’ men and women. 

When we are thinking about non-inclusion, we need to look beyond the hardcore evidence. Lived realities are never featured in the statistics. The global order is essentially asymmetrical in terms of power relations. Misogynist regimes across the globe are a function of majoritarian politics – they are there for “making the majority great”. These systemic non-inclusions feed into discriminations at all levels.

The fundamental problem with discrimination is that policymakers and academics alike think of it more as a perception than a lived reality. There’s no empirical strategy to quantify the amount of discrimination. Discrimination must not be thought of as a perception, because then there’s no empirical basis to contend for it.

In the Indian context, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are the most disadvantaged sections. Then, we have religious minorities like Muslims. There is clear-cut evidence, both in terms of policy reports of the government and NGOs, that glass ceilings are existing in our system which do not allow people from marginalised groups to move into the labour market. 

Sarkodie: Ann, I would like to better understand what steps your organisation is taking to develop inclusive employment and entrepreneurship programs.

Ann Hendrix-Jenkins: From the perspective of community-led development, one of the most key aspects regards inclusion, including inclusive employment, is lived experience. Thus, representation matters as these experts can take their ideas and aspirations to the next level. The next best thing is proximate leaders – people who do not necessarily represent the lived experience of people but are allies.

For organisations that claim to work for inclusion, it’s important to look inside and see whether they are inclusive enough. If not, that disconnect inevitably speaks for the quality of their programs. 

Sarkodie: Arman, what are some of the lessons or successes from the work your organisation has been undertaking that you think others could learn from?

Arman Ali: I work for the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People. When we started this organisation 25 years back, we believed that when you give economic independence to people with disabilities, you solve everything. However, when we started we discovered that people with disabilities were not being hired in private sector companies. In one of our surveys of the Super 100 companies in India in 1999, we found out that these companies hired less than 2% of people with disabilities in their workforce.

Also read: Interview | Nafisa Baboo on Making Our Educational Spaces Disability-Inclusive

In terms of education, less than 1% of the total population of people with disabilities were getting an education and within that 1%, only a few were getting meaningful employment. We figured out the bigger challenge was accessibility. If there are no accessible schools, you can not get decent employment. Thus, we shifted the focus of our organisation towards research-based advocacy. We act as a pressure group on the industry and the state. We started the ‘NCPEDP – Mindtree Hellen Keller Award’ to recognise employers actively employing people with disabilities. The award has gained such prestige that top-notch corporates are now taking part. 

Representative image. Photo: LCCR/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

A major challenge we face is that most people with disabilities are in the unorganised, informal sectors as small entrepreneurs. There’s no incentive offered to them. As far as the public sector is concerned, we have a mandatory 4% reservation under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act but implementation remains a challenge. Intersectionality, even in the context of disability becomes very important – women with disabilities are not even in these conversations. The pandemic has pushed us two decades behind where we have come from asking for a seat on the table to now asking people for basic amenities to support our everyday existence. 

Papa Amadou Sarr: In Senegal, we created the Rapid Entrepreneurship Delegation fund, formally launched in 2018, to support youth and women by giving them access to capital, financial training and all sorts of access to the market for them to be able to develop their businesses. This was an important milestone in structuring an organised pathway to foster employment and innovation in response to the issues faced by these two categories of the population.

In the past three years, I can say with confidence that we have been able to create an enabling environment for sustainable and inclusive business growth. Our mission is to actively work towards reducing gender inequalities in accessing funds and development. We also work in microcredit financing, supporting small and medium-sized enterprises. We have a special focus on the digital economy where we fund innovative start-ups in spaces like Artificial Intelligence.

Sarkodie: Finance is a key constraint that small women-led businesses face. We have discussed different dimensions of identity that serve as barriers to employment: gender, age, disability, religion and so forth. 

How do these different identity markers compound each other? To what extend are practitioners able to apply an intersectional lens? How do we design initiatives that are tailored and customised for these different lived realities?

Khan: Exclusion is a deliberate attempt of keeping certain people out. Exclusion might not necessarily be direct. The problem does not lie only in inclusion in the labour market but is deep-rooted. It is tied to indicators such as educational attainment, health and even the geographical and cultural context of people. 

The intersectional theory argues that there’s no single identity. Multiple overlapping identities are reinforcing each other. The current President of India comes from an excluded caste. I can bet that even today, if he as the President goes to a household that believes in casteism, he will be served in separate utensils. Does class mobility help with dismantling casteism? 

Let’s assume we have a determined government to push those reservations under positive affirmative action, as far as the labour market is concerned, do we have people with the required skill sets? We cannot be pushing for a particular solution if we don’t take into account the interconnectedness of problems. 

Hendrix-Jenkins: Gender-based analysis tools can be particularly useful. It starts with gender but can expand into other intersections. In terms of inclusion, we need to think of marginalised groups representing untapped potentials. We need to understand who they are and why they are marginalised; what are the underlying structural and systemic reasons. It also gives you a window into the spaces you are designing policies for.

Women working in the rice paddy fields. Credit: Trócaire/Justin Kernoghan/Flickr

Women working in the rice paddy fields. Photo: Trócaire/Justin Kernoghan/Flickr

Ali: Disability cuts across all spades of life; it’s a wide spectrum. However, intersections within this discourse are important to take note of. As mentioned previously, women, then say Dalit-women are the most vulnerable and face multiple layers of discrimination.

Also read: Can Global Cities Be Made Fair, Inclusive and Just?

Sarkodie: We all have heard the saying, What matters get measured and what gets measured, matters.” When we’re thinking about the impact of inclusive employment programs and policies, what do we track and how do we see whether we’re achieving the outcomes that we’re aspiring to?

Maha Keramane: What we track first is job-readiness or employability. Is the person actually ready to go on a job? We try to measure employability and then the actual integration in the labour market. It has to be adapted with regards to the question of quality. Are there jobs that match your skillset and aspirations? Sometimes, it is also about fighting precariousness. How does one go from a precarious job to better employment? It can be about wages and even in terms of one’s self-confidence. Thus, it’s important to understand with precision who your beneficiaries are and what you are trying to achieve for them.

Sarkodie: How do we measure the impact taking into account both the numbers, as in how many women are entering the job market, but also in terms of experiences, such as quality of employment, dignity and so on?

Sarr: When we are making our budgets, we take into account how many young people and women will we reach out to. It helps us in setting our milestones so that we know how many we will be creating, how much money we fund, and what is the direct impact of it. However, there’s a spillover effect too. It’s not just the person we fund, but also the many people that one person trades with. It allows us to track both impact and progress.

Sarkodie: I think the global challenge of decent work for all is a defining one. Our identities are key determinants of access to productive and dignified employment opportunities across our communities. We cannot achieve SDG 8 if we fail at applying an inclusive, intersectional lens. If you could give just one piece of recommendation that you think will help the global community advance the inclusive employment agenda, what would it be?

Khan: Non-inclusion is both institutional and structural. We need to actually reach out to people and think together about what inclusion can do for us as a society. Then, we also need our institutions to function as they ought to.

Hendrix-Jenkins: Our programs must be led and populated by people with lived experiences of the community we intend to serve. For me, that’s the bottom line.

Keramane: We need to put the accent on the fact that non-inclusion in the labour market is not an isolated issue and must be located in its interconnections. Another thing we don’t focus enough on is what the richness of diversity brings to the table. Minorities must not be seen as a burden but as assets who bring richness and diversity along.

Ali: Any business that does not include people with disabilities or the marginalised will most likely cease to exist in the next 25 years. A reasonable accommodation is key for the way forward and without inclusion, one won’t survive in times to come.

Sarr: To begin with, targeting is the key. Think in terms of who are the people you wish to target and what your vision for them is.

Muda Tariq is an associate at Belongg Research Collective.