SINGAPORE: “I was not a farmer. I never even bought vegetables when my wife was around.”
To even his surprise, Mr Nithyaseelan N now finds himself surrounded by cartons of Xiao Bai Cai and Red Pak Choy, inspecting every leaf and stem for discolouration and spots, five times a week, seven hours each day.
The 66-year-old is one of four disabled employees working at MEOD, a vegetable farm in Kranji. Mr Nithyaseelan had his right leg amputated in 2016 as a result of complications from diabetes.
A year later, he wanted to work again. But as the former army instructor-turned-bus captain could no longer drive, he reached out to SPD, a local charity that serves people with disabilities, to help him find a job.
Being a vegetable packer is Mr Nithyaseelan’s third job since the operation. Previously, he worked as a security officer and then a weighbridge operator at a waste management firm. He likes where he is now, he said, even if he was uncertain about taking it up at first.
“I’m happy when I came here because we work like a family … the environment (is) very cozy, quiet, not much disturbances,” he said, adding that he is thankful that he has a job despite his lack of mobility.
Jobs like Mr Nithyaseelan’s cropped up on SPD’s radar only at the end of 2019, after the organisation’s employment support team looked into the farming industry when it noticed that Singapore was investing in the sector, said its senior employment support specialist Yvonne Tan. The first farm it contacted was MEOD in December 2019.
Then, COVID-19 struck, which led Ms Tan’s team to double down on their efforts and reach out to at least five more farms after the “circuit breaker”. The pandemic had affected the disabled community’s employment landscape. Some of SPD’s clients were retrenched, particularly from the hospitality industry, which also froze hiring.
And though there were administrative jobs available, a number of them required candidates to work remotely. Many of the disabled jobseekers were unable to fulfil that criteria, either because they lacked the technological know-how to use teleconferencing tools or the equipment to work from home.
There is no data on how the pandemic has impacted the employment situation among people with disabilities, but even before the crisis, fewer than 30 per cent of disabled residents between the working ages of 15 to 64 were employed, according to the Ministry of Manpower in September 2019.
Two other farms have expressed interest in hiring SPD’s clients, Ms Tan said, but discussions are ongoing. Each farm would have to take in at least four people in order to have enough clients for SPD to second an operations supervisor who also picks up the trade and guides the clients if they need help on the job. Last year, the charity successfully helped around 200 clients find work.
So far, the four working at MEOD are fitting in well, the company’s sales and marketing manager Daniel Lua said. Aside from Mr Nithyaseelan, there is a stroke survivor, another amputee and a brain injury survivor who still suffers from periodic seizures and has difficulty speaking.
Mr Lua said there was no need to redesign any part of the job for them. The only thing is that none of them can do any heavy lifting, so the other workers help to carry the boxes of vegetables from the chiller to their work station.
Initially, Mr Lua doubted whether the four of them were suitable for the job.
“I was unsure about their dependency on us because we don’t know if we had to … create certain working space specially for them,” he said. It was the first time the company employed people with disabilities.
He decided to put three of them on a six-month trial - Mr Nithyaseelan was hired as a full-time employee from the start - and saw that they were just as independent and efficient as the rest of the workers, he said. One of them has been given a full-time position, and another will soon be offered the same role. The third client moved to work in the greenhouse in December and is on another trial.
Mr Lua declined to reveal how much they were being paid, but said that it is at the market rate “or even slightly higher”. On the MyCareersFuture job portal, farm packing job listings were offering about S$1,400 a month.
However, both Mr Lua and Ms Tan acknowledged the limits in the type of disabled person a farm can hire. Those in a wheelchair or with visual impairment will not be able to do the work because of the space constraint sand terrain, or be able to scrutinise vegetables for their condition.
Hiring the disabled folks gave MEOD the opportunity to give back to society, Mr Lua said. But discussions with SPD had also come at the right time. After COVID-19 hit, the farm was in need of manpower as demand for their products had gone up, particularly among supermarkets and wet market stalls.
Mr Nithyaseelan was the first to come on board, in June of last year after the “circuit breaker”.
READ: COVID-19 pandemic highlights importance of strengthening Singapore's food security, say experts
Having seen their performance, Mr Lua said he is keen to hire more jobseekers with disabilities once MEOD moves to its new farm nearby, which will be six times larger than the current one-hectare plot. They will be shifting by the end of this year, Mr Lua said, although it will open in phases between then and 2023.
The company is thinking of promoting Mr Nithyaseelan and his colleagues when the team expands as well. For example, Mr Nithyaseelan could take on a supervisory role where he teaches newer employees how to conduct the quality checks.
It is a role Mr Nithyaseelan is looking forward to, as he describes what he hopes to do next. “Maybe a supervisor (where I) count how many package of boxes go to (the retailers).”
He plans to stay put at the farm, saying that he is contented there, as people are nice and there is always a constant flow of work to do. “(I get to be) independent and it keeps you active,” he said.