Dobraye Pechyva has become the first Belarusian bakery in which almost all employees are people with mental disabilities. The bake shop in Minsk does not only reveal the hardships mentally disabled people have to face in their everyday life: it also highlights how much more Belarus needs to do to support a minority that has been almost invisible for decades.
The Minsk bakery was opened in the kitchen of a business incubator house on the initiative of Dmitry Bogdanov, who has been engaged in supporting the employment of people in need for seven years. Speaking in an interview with Belarusian news portal TUT.BY, he revealed that he gathered his everyday motivation from one of his close friends who was injured in a serious accident. Discussing how hard it was for his friend to live as a disabled person, study everything again from scratch and find a job after years of searching, he said he never wanted this to happen to anyone else.
“There are many small industries where people with disabilities make their own toys, cards. But no one will buy a million of these cards: most likely, the person will be limited to one or two, and I wanted to create some kind of long-playing story that would bring a steady income,” he continued, noting, however, that his social enterprise is limited when it comes to salaries and providing benefits for people working there.
Dmitry spent more than a year developing a business plan and searching for potential partners, now including the Open House Center in Minsk and a Belarusian NGO specialising in helping children and young people with disabilities, among others.
After a selection period with 20 interested candidates, five people were selected to be part of this unique project.
“Every employee has different diagnoses: schizophrenia, epilepsy, mental disability. Honestly, I didn’t ask much about it. I made it clear from the start – they will be treated like ordinary people here,” he says of his employees, adding that he is now considering hiring another man with hearing disabilities.
Dobraye Pechyva also puts emphasis on environmental friendliness: the first time cookies are delivered to a client, the price of one package will be 20 [Belarusian] rubles, of which five are the security deposit per bag. The delivery man then simply refills the bag, and clients pay five rubles less.
“We are going to deliver our products to different offices on an ongoing basis: as soon as they run out of cookies, the customers call us and we bring a new batch. There are already several companies with whom we will cooperate. For them, this is a way to increase customer loyalty – to show that the company not only makes money, but also helps those in need,” Dmitry continued.
The bakery’s team is headed by Olga Gurinovich, a local pastry chef who has previously worked in famous restaurants across the Belarusian capital and is now responsible for the production process. Among her new colleagues is Darya, a young Belarusian woman diagnosed with mental disabilities who has had several nervous breakdowns. A number of times when looking for work, she was refused by employers after they heard about her mental illness.
Another employee is Vyacheslav, who needs his job more than any of his fellow colleagues since he has to support his wife who, just like Vyacheslav, suffers from epilepsy. Although he is well-skilled in repairing computers, he had to wait 11 years to finally land a decent job. The disability pension in Belarus does not allow for good life.
“With our project, we hope to show Belarusian entrepreneurs that people with disabilities can and want to work, and they should not be ignored,” Dmitry said, calling on other socially committed enterprises to become changemakers.
Building on the success of the Minsk bakery, he now wants to open several others across to country to help not just the mentally disabled, but people with autism and Down syndrome.
Belarus was one of the latest countries to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016. The country, along with several other states in the former Eastern bloc, still seems to favour – albeit unofficially – the Soviet habit of marginalising and discriminating against people with mental illnesses.
On a more positive note, recent months saw discussions about a new draft law which bans discrimination and puts in place quotas for workplaces. However, civil society representatives argue that there is much more that needs to be done.
“We proposed an enhanced article on the protection of rights, which would have allowed NGO employees to appear in court as representatives,” Sergey Drozdovsky, the head of the Office for Rights of People with Disabilities, a Belarusian NGO, told Deutsche Welle earlier this year, adding that the rights of the mentally ill must be ensured. According to him, the Belarusian state still maintains tough control over the mentally disabled which was seen in a recent case when a mentally disabled mother in David-Gorodok was deprived of her child even though she had the partial backing of the Belarusian health ministry.