'The stakes are high, workers are willing to strike to save their jobs, and they have to because the government simply aren’t listening,’ says Phil Davies, national secretary of the GMB union. He is talking about the thousands of workers battling plans to close 36 of Remploy’s 54 factories this summer, with compulsory redundancies for 1,752 people. Of these, 1,518 are disabled. The remaining 18 sites will close soon after unless buyers can be found. With only a handful returning a profit, most are unlikely to do so.
Set up in 1945, the state-owned company Remploy is the UK’s leading specialist employer of disabled people, with some 3,000 people on its payroll. Despite pleas from unions, workers and their families, Remploy executives say they have no alternative but to press ahead with the closures and sell offs, arguing that their hand has been forced by cuts in government funding. The company is making a loss of more than £50million per year, although union officials say this could be reduced to £7million.
Glen Holdom, GMB officer for Remploy staff, says of the plans that ‘taking jobs from disabled people should not be tolerated in a civilised society. It will not improve the country’s financial situation – it may well make it worse.’ Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, has denounced the action as ‘barbaric . . . the government has sunk to a new low.’
So far there have been 60 expressions of interest in the factories from private companies, but many potential bidders are said to have asked for more financial support if they are to take on the risk of the loss-making units. To sweeten the deal, private companies have been offered a short-term £10 million subsidy of up to a third of the wages of the disabled workers.
Unions are unhappy that there has been no consultation and that the identities of bidders have not been revealed. ‘We’re entitled to know who has bid for the factories. It’s our members’ livelihoods at stake,’ says Phil Davies. ‘It’s open season for the asset stripper – we’ve not heard of a single bid where someone wants to take over lock, stock and barrel.’
Life after layoffs
Despite unemployment standing at a 16-year high, the government is expecting the employees facing redundancy to find jobs in mainstream employment. The accounts of those who lost their jobs in the first round of Remploy layoffs, started in 2008 by the Labour government when it shut 28 factories, tell a different story.
In an interview with the Daily Express two former employees, Beverly and Robert Stevens, who accepted voluntary redundancy in 2008, told of the reality of life outside the factories. Mrs Stevens, 49, said she and her husband had been on work placements and gone for interviews but their search for jobs proved fruitless. ‘We have completed various placements with various employers,’ said Mrs Stevens, ‘all of which are happy to use our skills for a short space of time but none of which are willing to employ us and pay our wages.’
Mr Stevens had work placements as a kitchen assistant and shelf stacker at a major supermarket, which failed to offer a job after three years of service. Mrs Stevens had placements as a receptionist and an administration assistant.
She believes their chance of getting mainstream jobs is ‘nil’. ‘Neither of us wants to have to remain on benefits for the rest of our working lives. We have always worked until the closure of the factory.’ Eighty-six per cent of those who lost their jobs during this period remain unemployed.
Other stories are equally distressing. Tony, a worker at Barking Remploy, told the GMB, ‘We don’t want to leave here and be sitting around at home doing nothing. If it shuts down I don’t know what job I’m going to find. I have a job here where we have friends for life.’
His mum Cathy added that Tony was born with a learning disability and went to a special school. ‘He worked in the mainstream before he came to Remploy but was treated very badly, and had a very unhappy time. He came to Remploy 13 years ago. He works really hard and adores his job. It would be devastating for him and the family if the factory closes.’
Similar stories are echoed many times over by former and current Remploy employees.
Justifying the closures
It is perhaps unsurprising that the safe environment and financial security that the Remploy factories provide is not to this government’s taste. Less predictably, they have other critics too. Last year Liz Sayce, then chief executive of Radar, the Royal Association for Disability Rights (now Disability Rights UK), controversially called Remploy factories ‘ghettoes’ operating a ‘glass ceiling … with non-disabled people largely running the organisation and disabled people working in it’.
A government-commissioned report released by the charity is now being used to justify the closures. The work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith was quoted as saying the state should not fund ‘Victorian-era segregated employment’. The Department for Work and Pensions added that: ‘For many, Remploy factories can lead to institutionalisation and isolation of disabled people.’
Tracy Lazard from the Inclusion London charity says that fighting the closures is in no way an endorsement of segregated employment. But she argues that ‘at a time of recession, when non‑disabled people cannot find jobs and when benefit cuts are pushing genuine disabled claimants off benefits and into poverty, it is irresponsible to remove meaningful employment from thousands of disabled people.’
Phil Davies goes one step further. He says that some national charities, including Scope, Radar and Mencap, have acted in a ‘disgraceful manner’. He believes that the charities have tried to ‘feather their own nests’. He says that ‘last time there were people laid off from Remploy they were given placements. Where were they placed? Inside charity shops as free labour and that’s what they are hoping for again.’
Need for reform
It is clear from public meetings and internet message boards that there is a need for reform. Specifically there is much ill feeling towards management at the organisation. Campaigners feel that Remploy workers have been mismanaged by non-disabled people. Senior managers took home £1.8 million in bonuses in 2011 while the factory floor workers were under pay restraint. The average wage of senior management currently stands at £50,000 a year compared with £13,000 for the average worker, with some earning as much as £205,000 per year.
Martin, a Remploy worker, argues that: ‘Remploy is top heavy with non-disabled directors and senior managers who make no contribution to the Remploy factory network.’ Phil Davies agrees: ‘About 80 per cent of senior management are able bodied . . . And they have bled the company dry.’
Unions and workers have now released an alternative strategy for Remploy. By streamlining the management and other measures, they say it could save around £43million per year.
This is the fifth such document that trade unions have produced over the past 20 years as the organisation has come under threat from various governments. It sets out 10 key points for reducing costs and restructuring the organisation, making it less top heavy and more responsive to the needs of its disabled employees. These include the re-establishment of links with the armed forces to provide work for troops injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a greater emphasis on community links with the introduction of crèche facilities and space for small local businesses.
With the government expected to dismiss the alternative plan out of hand, thoughts are turning to the possibility of more radical action. Following a 79 per cent vote in favour of industrial action the workers have been out on strike. There is even talk of occupying the factories.
Tim Hunt is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.