Remploy closure plans: 'Social enterprise' hope for workers

The Welsh government wants to look into whether there are alternatives to help save jobs at Remploy factories threatened by closure.

Seven of the nine Welsh factories have been proposed for closure, threatening the jobs of 272 disabled people.

Education Minister Leighton Andrews wants more details on Remploy assets before considering stepping in, but social enterprises may be considered.

The UK government said the factories were not financially viable.

Workers fear they will not be able to find new jobs if the factories shut.

Mr Andrews, whose education portfolio includes skills, said after Wednesday's announcement that the Welsh government would examine the options for future support for the factories in Wales, including the development of social enterprises.

"It would be premature for us as a government to say more at this stage until we have more detailed information from the UK government and from Remploy," he said.

"Our focus as a government will be on maintaining employment opportunities for Remploy workers."

UK coalition ministers say "non-viable" Remploy factories should close with the money re-invested into other schemes to help disabled people find work.

The sites listed for closure are in Aberdare, Abertillery, Bridgend, Croespenmaen, Merthyr Tydfil, Swansea and Wrexham.

Factories at Porth and Neath will continue to operate.

Meanwhile, Welsh bakery Brace's has indicated it wants to restart talks about buying Remploy's factory site in Croespenmaen, Newport.

Director Mark Brace said he had previously expressed an interest in purchasing the site in 2003, before the new bakery was built next door, as part of the company's expansion plans.

The UK Minister for Disabled People, Maria Miller, said the Remploy board was proposing to close the sites by the end of the year because they were unlikely to be independently financially viable.

She said the £320m budget for disability employment had been protected, adding that it currently cost £25,000 a year to support someone in a factory.

She told BBC Wales: "By making the changes we have, we can help more of the thousands of disabled people in Wales who do not get support at the moment, and who would benefit from doing so."

She said the UK government would provide a "personal one-to-one service for each of those people who are affected so that we can identify exactly what they need to get back into work".

'Extremely worried'

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) said around a fifth of that budget was currently spent on Remploy factories, but nearly all of the factories were loss making and last year lost £68.3m.

Simon Green, chair of the Bridgend Coalition of Disabled People, said: "I'm extremely worried."

He said Remploy factories offered disabled people a "supportive environment" and were "geared up" to their needs, unlike other workplaces which were not always adapted.

Mr Green, a wheelchair user, told BBC Wales: "There are many, many offices, many supermarkets that I could not work in as a wheelchair user [because they] wouldn't be accessible."

In Aberdare, a private company, Modesty Limited, has been using the local Remploy factory to manufacture its underwear products for the spray tan industry.

Christine Fitt, a joint director at the company, said the factory's closure would have a big effect on the business.

She said workers had given "superb support".

"The impact on us is we have to find someone else to manufacture our products and we are being forced, possibly, out of Wales," she said.

Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales, said she supported an integrated society and said that Remploy factories were set up in a different era.

But Les Woodward, a wood machinist at Remploy in Swansea, and a Remploy national convener, said: "We do not see ourselves as being segregated.

"We all support an integrated society but it should be based on choice," he said, adding "we won't go down without a fight".

Remploy factories were established 66 years ago as part of the creation of the welfare state.

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