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The Role of Public Service Trade Unions in achieving Decent Work for Persons with Disabilities

21 March 2017
This groundbreaking conference, organised by PSI with the support of ILO/ACTRAV and ILO/GED, marked the beginning of a new area of collaboration. PSI in partnership with the ILO explored the issue of workers with disabilities with a special focus on the role of the public sector and public services.

On 8-9 December 2016, PSI, with the support of ILO/ACTRAV and ILO/GED held a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland building on a survey conducted by PSI and ILO of PSI affiliates’ initiatives on disability inclusion, and on ILO research giving a global overview of trade unions actions on disability inclusion.

PSI affiliates from a range of sectors and from around the world shared their experiences, alongside specialists in subjects related to labour. The conference raised awareness on disability issues, disseminated information on initiatives taken around the world, and helped to identify the way forward for PSI affiliates, PSI itself and the ILO. This conference marked the opening of new ground at an international level: in terms of a global union federation in partnership with ILO exploring disability, and specifically in the role of the public sector and the public services.

As a participant observed: "there have been many cases of people with disabilities discriminated in government service across the world, and this initiative is part of a historical change in the position of disability and persons with disabilities".

Examples of trade union action on disability from around the world were featured, including advanced economies as well as low- and middle-income countries and those coming out of crisis or conflict. Even in countries where this would be challenging to introduce, or trade unions are fighting for their existence, there was a committed acknowledgement that disability should be treated as an integrated concern in going forward.

Working on disability offers a win-win partnership with social partners and is part of trade union action in fighting inequality and injustice and protecting the most vulnerable. Understanding disability in this social sense also highlighted the importance of treating it in an intersectional way, particularly in relation to gender and socio-economic status.

The issue of disability is of particular relevance to PSI and its priorities in terms of privatization and cuts to public services which have adversely affected persons with disabilities. For example, the privatization of government services in Australia has created a series of negative impacts and risks for disabled people. Recruitment in the public sector has a fixed process and anti-discrimination measures; in the privatized services this transparency is lost. Both in the provision of disability-specific services as well as accessibility/inclusion measures in mainstreaming services privatization has offered threats. Accessible services like support teachers or sign languages may not be provided in the same way.

A lack of regulation of services, together with increasing fragmentation and some unscrupulous behaviour by service providers has created negative consequences for users with disabilities. Legislation and policy around disability in Australia also creates structural discrimination. Sheltered workshops with low-paid work were found by a court to be underpaying 10,000 persons with disabilities. A new National Disability Insurance Scheme, combined with privatization of services, has in many cases not led to the increased choices it was designed to deliver. This differentiation especially happens across class or rural/urban divides.

Within the public sector, different levels of the public administration, as well as different sectors will need different approaches, especially in terms of securing resources needed for implementation. Education was a key example, showing how the sector is both relevant as an employer of persons with disabilities as well as vital in providing services and inclusion of children with disabilities.

A clear result of the conference was in showing the relevance of disability to different dimensions of PSI and its affiliates, in their role as unions and public sector representatives, in particular:

  • Mainstreaming inclusion of persons with disabilities and disability within trade unions and their activities;
  • Public sector employment of persons with disabilities – important in fulfilling responsibilities and being a role-model for society;
  • Defending public services, through identifying and acting on the particular risks persons with disabilities face in challenges to public services;
  • Promoting public services, through developing services inclusive of and accessible to persons with disabilities.

While PSI acts across a range of contexts with affiliates in diverse situations, there is a common need for trade unions to reflect and deepen action on persons with disabilities. With this increased clarity on how disability fits into PSI and its programme of action, there is guidance on the issues to be explored further in the next years and in wider collaboration between PSI and ILO.

Listen to some of the interventions at the meeting from Phyllis Opoku-Gymiah, (PCS, UK)

and Lauro Purcil, (PSLINK, Philippines):

Photos of the meeting:

More information:


Also see:


Also see