Special workers

A Tabusina workshop In a post-industrial, information-driven, knowledge-based economy as ours, success in business lies in "attracting, motivating and retaining the best talent", we are often told. But that only refers to less than one per cent of the population. What, then, are we to do with the rest? Tasubinsa, a "special employment center" where 90 per cent of the workers suffer mental, physical and sensorial handicaps, provides us with a more realistic view of business and firms. Certainly profits are important, but that is no excuse to turn firms into ruthless money-making machines. Instead firms would more properly be viewed as institutions that develop people through work, thus allowing them to contribute to society’s common good.
The Spanish law on social integration of 1982 created special employment centers to provide productive and gainful work for the handicapped. The law obliges companies with more than 50 employees to set aside at least two per cent of its jobs for these members of society. Alternatively, companies should purchase goods or services from special employment centers or from self-employed disabled workers. Failure to comply would result in substantial fines and exclusion from government contracts. Within this framework Tasubinsa was constituted in 1989 by the Navarre Regional Autonomous Government and ANFAS, an association for the mentally disabled. Tasubinsa engages in the manufacturing and assembly of parts for automobiles, home appliances, vending machines, and electronic apparatuses, apart from offering logistics, landscaping and janitorial services. With close to 1,300 workers, Tasubinsa ranks fourth among Navarre firms in the number of employees.
Aside from running special employment centers, Tasubinsa also uses other formulas such as "work enclaves", "mobile brigades" and "jobs with individual support" to reach its goals. "Work enclaves" allow Tasubinsa employees to render services to a partner-firm, replenishing shelves in a supermarket or distributing mail in an office. "Mobile brigades" typically provide on site cleaning or gardening services, whereas "jobs with individual support" from Tasubinsa staff could refer, for example, to kitchen aides or dishwashers in a restaurant or a catering. Also associated with Tasubinsa are several occupational centers which either prepare individuals for work, by helping them acquire skills, or attend to those already past their prime and suffer from premature aging. Among the mentally disabled this usually sets in at around 45.
Adapting the production process
Two main traits set Tasubinsa apart in its corporate culture. First is the effort to adapt production processes to workers. Thus Tasubinsa readily incorporates automation and robotics, "poka yoke", "kanban" and "cellular manufacturing" techniques. Through "poka yoke" (Japanese for "mistake or error-proofing"), complex processes are broken down into units simple enough to be carried out by disabled workers. "Poka yoke" means that procedures, tools and operations are so designed that they cannot be performed incorrectly. Think of the insertion of a floppy disk into a computer, for example, which can only be done in a single way. Analogous "lock and key" procedures are continually used in Tasubinsa production processes.
The basic idea of "kanban" ("card-signal" in Japanese) is that suppliers only deliver components as needed —upon receipt of an order card with the corresponding empty container— to avoid inventory build-up. Unlike the forecast-oriented method, where parts are pushed to the production line, in kanban the delivery of components is pulled by the production line itself. By providing quick and precise information at low cost, kanban allows Tasubinsa to generate a rapid response to market changes. It also permits the delegation of responsibility to line workers.
Finally, through "cellular manufacturing" techniques, Tasubinsa makes it possible for groups or "cells" of people to work together. Not only do cells handle production per se, but they also manage inventories and figure out by themselves how to improve their performance. The strict separation between thinking and doing characteristic of old-fashioned management style of Taylorism is thus avoided. Furthermore, in attention to the workers’ emotional and social needs, workstations are arranged in a manner that encourages communication. Easy and fluid dialogue, in turn, favors an atmosphere of good humor, camaraderie and friendship. Such teamwork, apart from being good in itself, also drives up productivity. These initiatives seamlessly weave into Total Quality Management and Just in Time methods. Tasubinsa likewise posseses ISO certifications for customer satisfaction and environmental management systems.
Motivating the workers
The second distinctive feature of Tasubinsa’s corporate culture refers to the manner in which it motivates workers. The disabled are different in that neither higher pay nor superior power or status by itself moves them. Instead, they respond better to what they perceive to be part of the demands of friendship. Supervisors try to cultivate friendly relations by acknowledging workers’ efforts and praising them for a job well done: this is a crucial component of their "psychological income". Neither should words of encouragement be lacking for those who fall behind. Most of these initiatives are channeled through "personal and social development teams" composed of supervisors, psychologists, educators and social workers who regularly meet to track the employees’ evolution, as well as their individual and group goals. They keep a logbook of "incidents" covering health, emotional stress, behavioral alterations, performance at work, relationship with other team members, family changes and so forth as they affect the worker.
Safeguards against paternalism and unhealthy condescension are also firmly in place. These include worker representation and participation in governance through councils and labor unions. Among their achievements are the "collective bargaining agreements" (with stipulations concerning work-hours and the work calendar, leaves, vacations, salary scales and professional ranks, worker mobility, family assistance, health, insurance and retirement benefits, etc.), generous provisions for employee training and the so-called "low performance contracts". These contracts allow workers who perform up to 25 per cent less than their normal capacity to keep all rights and privileges despite a wage deduction.
A profitable business
Tasubinsa is not a welfare agency nor a not-for-profit NGO. It is an independent business put up to provide goods and services produced by mentally handicapped people. Tasubinsa workers, management and board directors are subject to the same market pressures to survive, compete and grow. Tasubinsa’s managing director, Rosa Jaso, explains the firm’s profitability in terms of its "return coefficient". Three-fourths of Tasubinsa’s income proceeds from its own revenues and only a quarter comes from state aid. And from the total amount of state aid received, Tasubinsa returns a hefty 56 per cent through taxes and social security contributions.
There are other relevant benchmarks in determining how efficiently Tasubinsa makes use of resources. Sales revenues have been steadily rising and the percentage of subsidies to sales revenues have correspondingly decreased, reflecting lesser dependence on state aid. There also was a proportionate decrease in the percentage of subsidies to salaries during these last five years. In other words, with less labor costs, Tasubinsa was registering greater sales. Nonetheless, these gauges of productivity -- apart from purely financial profitability -- should always be compared to the ultimate standard the firm has set for itself, which is the complete integration of the mentally handicapped through work.
Given the challenges of working with the mentally handicapped, one would expect a very high turnover rate among Tasubinsa professionals. Yet the turnover rate for the past five years has been zero. Taking into account that pay is not exceptionally high, something else must be keeping these professionals in Tasubinsa. Theirs is what one may call a "vocational commitment". Tasubinsa professionals give more of themselves than what their contracts require. They also receive a lot more, although this plus factor cannot be accounted for in Euros.
Tasubinsa’s mentally disabled employees reciprocate this loyalty. Many of those who qualify for a "job with individual support" elsewhere or for the status of an "self-employed worker" prefer to remain in Tasubinsa instead. And those who actually leave always return during their free-time and holidays to be with their friends. Tasubinsa provides an environment conducive to their development and growth, not only as disabled workers but as integral human persons. Tasubinsa is more than just a place of work; it is their community, almost like their family. This is especially significant because the great majority of Tasubinsa’s handicapped workers never get to form families of their own.
In Tasubinsa, the good which individual members seek and that which the organization is after is one and the same: a "common good". Not that everyone does the same thing, but everyone does it for the same end. Clearly the common good must have a material basis -- disabled workers should be adequately paid, for instance -- but much else goes beyond that, such as satisfaction over one’s achievements and friendship. The material aspect is merely the tip of the iceberg compared to the other elements of a mentally handicapped person’s full flourishing.
Jaso has her own version of what the end or purpose of Tasubinsa is. As a special employment center, it is not to be just a "place of transit" which prepares mentally disabled individuals to work somewhere else but a real alternative for their complete social integration.
Dr Alejo Sison holds the Rafael Escolá Chair of Professional Ethics at the University of Navarra in Spain.


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