Could Remploy closures help more people into work?

Workers at a Remploy factory
Image caption Remploy was established in 1945 after the war

About 2,300 disabled workers fear that they could lose their jobs if a proposal to close the remaining 54 Remploy factories goes ahead. But could such a move actually help more people into work?

Paul, a worker from Sheffield, has been with Remploy for 33 years and is typical of those who fear for their futures if it is wound down.

"I weld the little bits for coffee tables that screw on underneath and keep the top on. It's not a bad little job.

"If I lose my work, I don't want to be called a layabout. I'm going to try and find another one but I've been turned down before. I know for a fact it's because they think I'm, you know, 'unwell'. They don't want my sort."

Remploy factories were established 66 years ago as part of the creation of the welfare state. The organisation gave jobs to disabled ex-coal miners and injured servicemen coming home from World War II.

In recent years, the organisation has been changing from a "sheltered" employer to a service which assists people with disabilities into mainstream jobs.

James Stribley, a Remploy convener for the GMB union and a former factory floor worker, has similar feelings to Paul: "Remploy is my life. I don't know what I'd do if it closed, I just don't know.

"I wouldn't be able to do a physical job, I have chronic pain in my arms. I was working a machine but you'd have somebody to help you at Remploy. Other employers aren't as understanding towards people's disabilities."

'Not meeting aspirations'

Remploy's employment arm assisted 20,000 people with disabilities into mainstream work last year, and its factories now have 2,300 employees due to a voluntary redundancy programme - about half of the workforce it had in 2008.

The government and Remploy describe the commercial side of the business as loss making, and a recent report has put the future of the factories into sharp focus.

The report, commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and carried out by Liz Sayce, chief executive at the disability rights charity Radar, was presented to Parliament last month.

Ms Sayce praised the government's Access to Work scheme, which provides funding to make jobs accessible. But she said it served just 37,000 people per year and was the government's "best kept secret".

She suggests 35,000 extra people could be supported into work for the same price it costs to support the 2,300 people currently at Remploy factories.

She recommends the withdrawal of government money from Remploy to fund Access to Work instead.

The minister for disabled people, Maria Miller, later told the BBC a third of the specialist disability employment budget went towards supporting individuals in segregated work at Remploy.

She added: "That money could be used to support far more people to be in the sorts of mainstream jobs that really meet the aspirations of disabled people now, rather than perhaps the aspirations that they had in the Second World War when Remploy was first set up."

An average person receives £2,600 via Access to Work, whereas one place at a Remploy factory costs £25,000, according to figures provided by the DWP.

These are not like-for-like figures, however. The GMB supports Access to Work, but is quick to say it is not the same as a job.

Access to Work provides money for taxis to and from work, taxis within work, sign language interpreters, support workers, equipment and workplace adaptions so that disabled people can work in a mainstream environment or continue to do a job they are beginning to find difficult. You need to have a job first, however.

It remains to be seen whether or not the extension of the scheme will result in more disabled people in mainstream employment, as barriers to work such as prejudice cannot easily be solved with money.

'Stigma and mickey-taking'

Remploy union representative Steve Morris says that Remploy gives real meaningful work to its employees, and thinks Ms Sayce's plan is idealistic.

"The workers have already worked in outside industry. We don't live in a politically-correct rose-tinted spectacles world that some academics believe is out there. There is still stigma and mickey-taking on the ground, and they don't want to go back to that if the factories close.

"The economic climate at the moment is dire.

"Those companies that have got good disability awareness are more likely to be in the public sector which is an environment of cuts at the moment, and there are few opportunities to be had.

"The other thing is they are fully aware that their colleagues who took redundancy three years ago went from the factory to benefits and are still unemployed.

"Most people like to contribute to society and part of doing that is to be at work."

Worker buyouts?

Ms Sayce's report has echoes of the last 40 years of the disability movement embodied in it.

Grassroots organisations have fought against segregation in work, and more generally in education and domestic living.

They believe that if disabled people mix with non-disabled people more often, it will nurture a greater understanding of disability and ultimately lead to acceptance and more accessible environments.

Charities such as Mencap, Mind and the Disability Alliance have lined up to support the recommendations.

Jaspal Dhani, CEO of grassroots organisation UK Disabled People's Council, says: "I think we have to understand the history behind schemes like Remploy, which were set up originally when disabled people were institutionalised and government thought it would be therapeutic.

"It was a good thing then.

"For those disabled people that can work, the starting point, perhaps the only point, is they should be able to provide for themselves in open work.

"They should be able to work in a company, whether big or small, that's operating in the wider community and should be included in that mainstream society without having to depend on an institutionalised working service."

Though government funding could be taken away from Remploy factories, Ms Sayce suggests that co-operatives could carry them on.

But Mr Morris is sceptical that any new money will be forthcoming to help with worker buyouts, and says people with disabilities need more help gaining new commercial contracts, not less.

A spokesperson from the DWP said: "No decisions have been made about Remploy. We said we would consult on the recommendations put forward by Liz Sayce and that is what we are doing."

It does, however, say that it is "attracted to" the idea.

The consultation process is under way and is due to end on 17 October.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites