By Nur Natasha Aida Ismail (This article is released in conjunction with International Day for People with Disabilities which falls on Dec 3.)
SEREMBAN (Bernama) -- At first glance, they look like normal people who are hard at work but on closer observation, it becomes obvious that they have disabilities as some of them are on wheelchairs while others are using sign language to communicate.
They are part of the 46 workers who are currently attached to Bengkel Seri Sembilan, a vocational centre in Mambau -- about 10 kilometres from here -- that was opened in 1977 to provide skills-based training and employment opportunities to the disabled community.
Established under the auspices of the Negeri Sembilan Social Welfare Department and Negeri Sembilan Disabled People's Association, the workshop offers jobs involving printing and folding envelopes, as well as in agriculture, livestock farming and tailoring.
Bengkel Seri Sembilan manager Harunarrsheed Mohd Ibrahim said the workers are supervised by 10 staff, three of whom are disabled.
He said before absorbing them as full-time workers at the workshop, they are interviewed first and the successful candidates undergo training for three months.
"During the training process, we will give them various tasks to perform so that we can assess their abilities. Some of them are good and can be hired as workers after just two weeks or one month of training.
"If they get a better job opportunity elsewhere after undergoing training at our workshop, we won't stop them from leaving. In fact, I always remind their families that our workshop is akin to a 'stopover' while they wait to get to their real 'destination'.
"Most of our workers, however, are intellectually impaired and they find it difficult to get jobs in other places. They are allowed to work in our workshop for as long as they want. We have had one person who worked here for 38 years until he passed away at the age of 67," Harunarrsheed, who was appointed Bengkel Seri Sembilan manager in 2016, told Bernama.
Bengkel Seri Sembilan is open to people who are physically disabled or have learning difficulties or have speech, hearing or mental impairments. However, they must be able to take care of themselves and must be 18 years and above and registered with the Social Welfare Department.
Out of the 46 workers currently stationed at the workshop, seven are physically disabled, 27 have learning difficulties and 12 are hearing impaired. They also receive a monthly RM400 disability allowance from the Social Welfare Department. Those who work more than 10 days a month are given a special allowance of RM150. BIG ORDERS FOR ENVELOPES
Catering to orders for envelopes from government departments, statutory bodies, local authorities and private companies make up a bulk of the work done by Bengkel Seri Sembilan's disabled workforce.
According to Harunarrsheed, the workshop is currently supplying envelopes to over 400 government departments and agencies. The completed envelopes are printed with the address and logo of the department or agency concerned before they are delivered to them.
The orders for envelopes can generate sales worth RM100,000 to RM120,000 a month, depending on their size.
"For the envelope-making process, we have workers handling the printing machine, cutter and folding machine. We also have workers at the section where the envelopes are folded manually.
"Jobs involving the use of machines are done by our physically-disabled workers. We don't allow our workers with learning difficulties to do such work," said Harunarrsheed.
The employees work five days a week from 8 am to 5 pm and many of them earn up to RM900 a month. They also make monthly contributions to the Employees Provident Fund and Social Security Organisation.
Those involved in folding envelopes manually can earn about RM250 to RM600 a month, depending on the number of envelopes they produce a day.
Harunarrsheed said some of the workers can save up to RM60,000 during their stint at the workshop as they are provided with hostel facilities and food. EXPLORE NEW INCOME SOURCES
Considering the shrinking market for envelopes as offices turn to electronic means (facsimile machine, email and others) to send letters, Harunarrsheed said he has already started to scout for new business activities for the workshop.
"I expect our orders for envelopes to be slashed by half in 10 years time," he said, adding that the workshop's current agricultural and livestock farming projects have the potential for expansion.
About 0.8 hectare (two acres) of the 5.6-ha plot on which Bengkel Seri Sembilan is located has been planted with banana, lemongrass and tapioca, as well as leafy vegetables such as kailan
"We have also planted fruit trees like durian, soursop, mango, jackfruit, cempedak
, mangosteen, coconut and longan," he said, adding that they have also planted mushrooms that can generate sales of between RM500 and RM600.
In January this year, they embarked on planting chillies and are targeting to grow 5,000 polybags of chillies.
Some of the workers are involved in rearing chickens and Harunarrsheed said he hopes to introduce cattle farming as well. FORTUNATE
Yee Sen Sai, 42, who is among the workforce at Bengkel Seri Sembilan, said he considers himself lucky for being given the opportunity to work at the workshop.
Yee, who lost a leg in a road accident 12 years ago, said he was unemployed after the accident as he had to undergo treatment and physiotherapy.
"It was a physiotherapist who recommended Bengkel Seri Sembilan to me and I promptly went there for an interview and was accepted," he said.
Yee, who is still single and whose job is to fold the envelopes manually, said the workshop gave him a ray of hope as it allowed him to earn an income and become self-sufficient.
"The work is easy and there is a hostel here where we can stay," he said, adding that he gets to earn about RM1,000 every month.
Ibrahim Idrus, 65, and his wife Jamahina Sulong, 58, are both wheelchair-users and have been working at Bengkel Seri Sembilan as tailors for eight years.
Ibrahim was born normal but at the age of two, he came down with a high fever which left his legs immobile. Jamahina suffered nerve problems after her head was hit by stone fragments while working at a quarry when she was 17 years old and she has been unable to walk since then.
Fortunately, they are both able to do tailoring work as their upper bodies are normal. Together, they earn about RM1,000 a month.
"Our income now may not be as good as what we used to earn when we ran our own business earlier. But here we are also provided food and drinks and we don't have to pay electricity or water bills. We are also able to participate in recreational and spiritual programmes and are also given health checks," said Ibrahim.
He said he and his wife would return to their rented house in Labu, Negeri Sembilan, every week to be with their three children aged between 33 and 38.
Translated by Rema Nambiar