Sheltered Employment for Persons with Disabilities

By Visier, Laurent | International Labour Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Sheltered Employment for Persons with Disabilities


Visier, Laurent, International Labour Review


Sheltered employment is expanding in many countries with various types of institutions offering an increasing number of positions to persons with disabilities who wish to work. The structures involved are also showing a growing desire for recognition as full participants in the economy and as employing higher professional standards. In fact, many providers of sheltered employment are now using management methods borrowed directly from the commercial world. Quality control procedures have been introduced in a number of countries, in order to obtain ISO 9000 certification and to compete on an equal footing with normal enterprises.

However, such institutional structures have evolved in very diverse legal contexts ranging from general business law to the special provisions governing establishments with a therapeutic function. Given such contextual diversity, questions of the employment status and fundamental rights of the workers involved may - sometimes crudely - be overlooked. This article offers an overview of that particular aspect of sheltered employment.

Two problems are particularly important in this sector. The first arises from the various concepts of sheltered employment. Does it provide workers with an occupation over the long term or can it constitute transitional employment on the way to entry or re-entry to unsheltered employment? The second question is an extension of the first in respect of the objectives of sheltered employment. Should the production of goods and services take priority over therapeutic or medical and social concerns? Are these dual objectives compatible? Clearly, there is very considerable inter-country variation in the definitions, limits, context and conditions applicable to sheltered employment and as a result in whether persons with disabilities are granted full employment status. It depends, for example, on whether the structure in question is governed by labour legislation or by legislation on health care and social policy. In fact this dual, differentiating approach was confirmed in a ruling by the European Court of Justice in 1987 (the Bettray case, No. 344/87), which has not been overturned by subsequent case law. In effect, a dividing line was drawn between the sheltered sector and "ordinary" employment.

Mention should also be made of the negative image sometimes associated with sheltered employment and disabled workers, as epitomized in the use of terms such as "ghetto", references to segregation or the artificial position the sector holds in the economy (Velche and Baysang, 1995), or to the strengthening of links between provision for children and adults, and the problems of adjustment to changing social and socio-economic conditions (Blanc, 1995).

In order to address these questions, this article reports on a study made of employment conditions in sheltered workshops in a number of countries.1 In the opening section, an overview of sheltered employment in 20 countries is provided. The following section elaborates a typology of the various forms of sheltered employment encountered in the study. Finally, in a concluding section a number of policy proposals are put forward.

Overview of sheltered employment Type and legal personality of sheltered employment structures

The legal framework of sheltered employment provision varies. In the majority of cases the structures are private establishments, usually run by voluntary associations or as cooperatives or, more rarely, as genuine commercial enterprises. (In Ireland, South Africa and Portugal all the structures are private.)

The composition of the sector as a whole varies from situations in which sheltered workshops are run by many small, voluntary associations, some of them managing just one establishment, to a situation in which a single entity predominates (as in the case of Remploy in the United Kingdom) or even constitutes the entire sector (such as Samhall, a foundation that became a limited liability company in 1992, in Sweden).

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