The launch of Cambodia’s National Disability Strategic Plan 2019-2023 in November provided yet another occasion for fawning. King Norodom Sihamoni lauded the government’s “willingness and commitment…to serve persons with disabilities in Cambodia,” while Prime Minister Hun Sen (who never tires of reminding the public he, too, has a disability: an eye lost while he was fighting for the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime) boasted of his regime’s achievement.
But his government, in reality, has for a decade done next to nothing about the issue. Yes, some disabled people have benefited from broader improvements to the social security system, though many still go without adequate state aid. And, of course, changing public opinions about disabilities is difficult, and making sure the private sector focuses on the abilities of potential employees, not their disabilities, is hard going even in developed countries. But you might think that a “willing” and “committed” government would focus on things it can easily change, like who it employs.
According to the Prime Minister in November, 2,860 disabled people are employed by the state. If true, it means almost nothing has changed since 2016, when, as I reported then, there were 2,460 disabled people employed by the state. Or, more accurately, in over three years this “committed” government has only employed an extra 440 disabled people, despite the civil bureaucracy ballooning.
One of the most appalling aspects of the government’s disinterest is the fact it cannot even agree on numbers of disabled people. The usual government estimate trotted out is that around two percent of the population is disabled (so around 350,000 people), which is way below the 15 percent global average recorded by the United Nations. Some officials, though, spoke about 542,000 people with disabilities after a nationwide survey in 2017. The provisional estimates of the 2019 census don’t include figures for disabled people.
However, in September we saw Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation secretary of state Sem Sokh put the number of disabled people at 310,000 – so back down to ludicrously low 2 percent marker- while last month Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol said “there are more than one million disabled persons”, which is likely closer to the truth. More than a million, indeed, would be about 15 percent of the Cambodian population, akin to the global average.
How on earth does the government intend to aid the situation when the social affairs ministry reckons the number of disabled people is less than a third of what the public works ministry thinks? More than that, if Hun Sen’s employment figures are right, it means the government is still not sticking to its own rules, something disability-rights campaigners and myself have been talking about for years (see: Does Cambodia Really Care About Its Disabled?). A 2009 sub-decree to the Law on Protection and the Promotion of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that at least 2 percent of the public sector workforce should be made up of people with disabilities. But Hun Sen’s estimate in November (2,860 employed) still puts the number way below this 2 percent mark.
Moreover, state agencies still haven’t been punished for failing to meet this quota. Article 15 of the sub-decree stipulates that fines of 50 percent of a civil servant’s monthly gross salary would be meted out to state institutions that failed to meet their quotas. Back in 2016, I revealed in an article for Southeast Asia Globe that the Persons with Disabilities Foundation, which is supposed to collect the fines and sits under the control of the social affairs ministry, had not collected one fine in its six years existence. Meanwhile, I also revealed that the Disability Rights Administration, also under the social affairs ministry and tasked with imposing fines for non-compliance, hadn’t in six years imposed one fine – and, as a staff member told me, didn’t even know how to go about doing so.
Even these woeful state employment figures are inflated somewhat, however, by better access to state employment in the cities, which skew the figures nationwide. What happens in the countryside, where the majority of Cambodians still live, is even worse. A survey of more than 4,000 disabled people last year by the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization (CDPO) found that 60 percent live under the country’s poverty line, and the same percentage of disabled children are unable to attend schools, most likely because of the woeful infrastructure in Cambodia for disabled people. For instance, early last year the CDPO reported that there were only 15 public restrooms with disability access in the whole of Phnom Penh, the capital.
If the government cannot enforce employment quotas over its own institutions, should we have any faith that it will apply any standards over the private sector? The vast majority of disabled people in employment are, indeed, either self-employed or fund themselves through Cambodia’s large informal sector. Ung Sambath, the deputy director of Disability Action Council, under the social affairs ministry, was quoted last year saying that of 542,000 disabled people recorded in Cambodia in 2014 only 38 percent are estimated to be in some form of employment. That percentage would be more than halved by the more reliable estimate of more than a million disabled people. An International Labor Organization report from last year estimated that in Cambodia “women with disabilities are 19.37 percent less likely to be in the workforce than the average of the population as a whole, while the rate for men is 8.36 points lower.” The CDPO last year began work on a nationwide database to connect disabled jobseekers with private employers.
But the 2009 sub-decree, mentioned earlier, also requires private business with more than 100 employees to have least one percent of their workforce made up of people with disabilities. Those that don’t ought to be fined, according to the law, 40 percent of an employee’s minimum monthly salary until it is rectified. Again, no fines have been imposed and the prevailing sentiment, even expressed by government officials, is that no-one really knows about this requirement. And instead of imposing fines in accordance with the law and cracking down on companies that don’t meet their quota, all that the social affairs ministry seems to be doing is hand-holding and trying to persuade private firms to show some compassion, like a new venture by Grab, the ride-sharing app, to employ deaf drivers – a nice idea, but hardly the kind of radical measure desperately needed.