Remploy - end of an era?

23rd November 2012

As part of a series of features for Disability History Month, Val Graham, LRC National Committee member and Remploy campaigner, looks at the history of the Remploy factories

Remploy, derived from re-employ, was set up under the 1944 Disabled Persons Employment Act by Ernest Bevin, then Minister of Labour. It formed a plank of the welfare state. A ‘land fit for heroes’ could not contemplate a repeat of the street scene after the First World War, when limbless soldiers played mouth organs to support themselves. Originally the Disabled Persons’ Employment Corporation, the first factory opened in 1946 in Bridgend, Wales and the brand name Remploy was soon adopted.

Remploy was welcomed by disabled people who wanted to work and be active economically and in their communities. The first factory manufactured violins and furniture and many employees were disabled ex miners. Remploy enjoyed both government and community support.

At its height, Remploy had around 100 factories spread across England, Scotland and Wales and employed over 10,000 disabled workers. A wide range of goods and services was produced and Remploy workers were skilled in many sectors from textiles to motor components.

A Tory Government with its privatising agenda, struck the first blow when, in 1994, Minister Michael Portillo ended a scheme whereby Remploy was guaranteed priority for government contracts and compulsory competitive tendering was imposed. Within 18 months, the value of contracts into the textile sector alone had dropped from £18 million to £3 million.

Calls from the Tory benches for Remploy to be privatised began. The trade union consortium representing Remploy Workers lobbied successive governments concerning the management of Remploy. Since 1995 the number of disabled workers employed had fallen to 2,500 in 2011 with only 54 factories still working. Yet the number of senior managers had grown from 250 to over 400 while their pay and bonuses escalated, and perks such as private healthcare, cars and allowances were introduced for all senior managers. The average differential between disabled shop floor workers and senior managers had increased from £18,000 to £35,000 per annum.

The trade union consortium put forward proposals which would have saved millions of pounds over the years. Opportunities were lost such as when a manager in Cornwall objected to the relatively small set up cost of fulfilling a contract worth £1 million to make T-shirts for the Glastonbury Festival.

Activism in defence of Remploy was born: workers and supporters mounted a successful campaign in 1999 against closure and merger of factories. But managers failed to make use of the opportunity for one reserved public contract and the decline continued.

A renewed campaign greeted the 2007 announcement under Labour of factory mergers and closures. Teams of activists travelled the country by coach to every site on the hit list, from Inverness to Cornwall. Yet 30 factories closed and 2,500 workers lost their jobs. Many took voluntary redundancy and after three years 85% had not found other work. Labour’s Peter Hain effectively put Remploy on notice and it is arguable that the Tories see themselves as finishing what New Labour started as with so much else they have done. Their ideological hatred of the welfare state was however, in this case, masked in the rhetoric of progressive ideas and practice. As Owen Jones points out, they are clever in a very manipulative way!

The new coalition government commissioned Liz Sayce from the disability charity Radar to review employment support for disabled people. She concluded that Remploy was not efficient and the subsidy should not be renewed but directed to supporting disabled workers in mainstream employment. Remploy factories were presented as ghettoes, a barrier to inclusion.

In my opinion, some disabled activists have been equivocal about supporting the Remploy Crusade because of their support for inclusion. Disabled workers at Remploy have nothing but contempt for the six disability charities which supported the Government’s decision to close Remploy. They believe that these charities have a vested interest because they want to compete for a bigger slice of Access to Work funding. For the King’s shilling, they have been prepared to see disabled workers   thrown on to the dole, facing a lifetime of poverty and bullying by the DWP and Atos. This funding increase is not guaranteed and an Access to Work grant is only of use to a disabled person if they have a job and an employer who will match fund. Remploy workers know they will be at the back of the queue for any job going and that subsidising their employment costs a lot less than benefit and lost tax revenue.

Inclusion should be a right not a stick with which to beat disabled workers, especially at a time when unemployment is high, public expenditure is being slashed, and all workers rights are under attack.

The Tories who bay for an end to supported employment are the first to be outraged when the closure of special schools is mooted. When I was collecting money for Remploy, many of the givers were the parents of children with a disability who feared for their future after school. At Whittington Remploy, some workers had tried mainstream employment. Others were there because they needed a sheltered environment to recover from mental health problems. There was a deaf community using sign language and non deaf employees had learned it too. Remploy workers had exercised a choice for sheltered employment and now most of them are on the dole with only 18 factories left operating.

Given this government’s cruel, vicious, ideological and material attacks on disabled workers, unemployed workers and those whose disability or limiting health condition prevents them from working, it is not surprising that Iain Duncan Smith arouses such hatred. The DWP is getting away with its welfare cut because welfare has been discredited in the popular mind, but it has also largely succeeded in destroying Remploy against the tide of public opinion. The fact that the sale of Chesterfield and Springburn factories has been put on hold while serious questions are answered may be a candle in the wind but it is the flame that two disabled working communities will warm their hands by this Christmas after their first strike in 65 years.

Thanks to Remploy activists – especially Bombastic Spastic – and to the GMB for the information on Remploy’s timeline.

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