Disabled breadwinners

By Bai Tiantian Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-6 23:33:01

Mentally disabled workers stand beside the Three Primary Colors Workshop in Beijing on Tuesday. Photo: Bai Tiantian/GT
Mentally disabled workers stand beside the Three Primary Colors Workshop in Beijing on Tuesday. Photo: Bai Tiantian/GT

The Amity Bakery on the corner of Huaqiao Road in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province is no ordinary pastry store.

On February 20, the Amity Bakery sold over 40,000 baking products, which was the equivalent of about half their usual annual production. This was because the vice president of the Alibaba Group, Tao Ran, posted this message on his Sina Weibo:

"In Nanjing, there is a bakery called Amity Bakery, where one third of the employees are people with intellectual difficulties. They have the intelligence level of 5 or 6-year-olds but they are meticulous with everything they do."

Tao's message attracted over 20,000 reposts and the online sales from the bakery skyrocketed. Despite this seemingly good fortune, Zhu Yanwei, the manager of the bakery, is concerned about the future of the business.

"I am both overwhelmed and worried," Zhu told the Global Times. While his current worries revolve around the fact that the store was caught unprepared by the flood of orders and is running short on both inventory and staff,  his chief concern is what will happen when this flood of attention passes.

"What worries me more is what to do in the future," said Zhu, "We've been losing money for the past few years. Right now people are ordering biscuits and cookies out of the goodness of their hearts. But that's not going to last forever. What we need is a more sustainable model so we can continue to do good deeds."

More than just a business

Although the Amity Bakery has called itself on Weibo the first non-profit organization providing sheltered employment for intellectually disabled people on the Chinese mainland, the idea of employing intellectually disabled people to work in bakeries has long existed in Taiwan.

Shops like the Eden Coffee Shop in Taoyuan county, Taiwan have been training and employing mentally disabled people to make bread, biscuits and cakes since the early 2000s.

"Bakeries have advantages over other professions because making bread or biscuits requires standardized procedures," said Zhu.

Founded by the Amity Foundation in 2007, the Amity Bakery was, in the beginning, nothing more than a workshop intended to provide a simulated working environment for the intellectually disabled to help them integrate into society.

Inspired by the concept of a "social enterprise," one of the founders of the bakery, Chu Chaoyu, transformed the workshop into a real store in 2009 and opened its first online Taobao shop in 2010.

"The idea was to apply commercial strategies to make the business sustainable so as to help more intellectually disabled people," Zhu explained.

In 2012, the Amity Bakery reached sales of 1 million yuan ($160,700), but after paying tax and rent, the bakery once again found itself losing money, according to the bakery's annual financial report.

"Our employees are a little different. They require more training and use up more raw materials. Our costs are a lot higher than other bakeries on the street, which puts us in a disadvantaged position," said Zhu, who estimated that the bakery spent 20,000 to 30,000 yuan on average to train each intellectually disabled apprentice.

Other businesspeople who learned about the Amity Bakery suggested franchising the business and opening chain stores, but the bakery politely declined. Zhu was grateful that people all over China are reaching out to help, but said the sales surge is likely to be temporary.

"We are still experimenting and the business is not stable. After a while the heat will come off and sales will drop. In the same way we are trying to help people with intellectual disabilities find dignity in their lives, we too, as a company, have to learn to stand on our own," Zhu said.

Limited acceptance

The Amity Bakery's dilemmas are not only caused by financial issues.

For years, the bakery has been trying to train mentally disabled people with working skills and encouraged trained apprentices to look for work in other bakeries.

"Our initial idea was to train them and once they found jobs we could recruit more people," Zhu said.

But this did not come to pass. One of their apprentices did find work in a different baking company, but within two months he was fired and returned to work at the Amity Bakery.

"Companies are reluctant to hire intellectually disabled people because they're worried they will have to take responsibility for any possible accidents," said Zhu, "Even if they do hire them, they'd rather pay them to stay at home to avoid trouble."

With eight intellectually disabled employees, the bakery has had to reject other applicants or will have to open more stores.

The Amity Bakery is not the only organization for intellectually disabled people that has encountered these problems. The Three Primary Colors Workshop, an organization devoted to training the mentally disabled that is affiliated with the Beijing Huiling Community Services for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities, is also having trouble helping apprentices find jobs.

Wu Liying, the social worker in charge of the workshop, told the Global Times that only a few of their trained apprentices are able to land jobs and those who do usually struggle with the social environment.

Ye Ran, 32, an apprentice from the workshop, found a job as a security guard in a local supermarket last summer. He quit after three months at Wu's request.

"The other security guards bullied him. They made fun of him and forced him to do their work without paying him. They even tried to teach him to smoke and drink and laughed about the idea," said Wu. "I cannot allow him to be treated like that."

Hidden within society

Ye was not aware he had been bullied. He told the Global Times that he had been happy to have a job even though it had been exhausting.

Xu Jiacheng, a professor specializing in special education from Beijing Union University, told the Global Times that more than half the country's intellectually disabled people are capable of working.

"It's merely a problem of whether we can help them find the right position," Xu said, adding that they may lack initiative but possess unparalleled patience and are good at following orders.

China has more than 5 million people with intellectual disabilities. The government has never released statistics on the employment rate for the mentally disabled but experts say the rate is very low. 

"There is currently no professional support from the government to help them integrate into society. The general concept is that people with mental disabilities should stay at home. They are people who live in the dark," Xu said.

The parents of these people often want nothing more than to bring sunshine into their children's lives, and ensure their futures.

The Mother of Huang Wenhui, an apprentice from the Amity Bakery, told the Global Times that she wants her daughter to have a job. "I am not going to be there for her forever. Some day when I am gone, it will be important for her to have an income."

Posted in: Society

blog comments powered by Disqus