Remploy employs disabled people to work in its factories but recent closures have left its workers scrambling for a decreasing supply of jobs as the credit crunch bites. Amy Taylor reports
The overgrown grass and lack of signs make a deserted warehouse on the Wirral easy to miss. But while company closures are becoming increasingly familiar during the current economic climate, the Birkenhead Central Cutting Unit (CCU) (some of the staff pictured below), like the 28 other shutdown Remploy factories, isn’t simply a victim of the credit crunch.
Under a closure programme announced in May 2007, 17 out of a total of 83 Remploy factories, including the cutting unit, merged with others, and 12 were closed. About 2,200 disabled people were affected by the changes to the government-funded company. Of these, 419 chose to remain with their employer, with 234 opting to remain on Remploy terms and conditions and wages.
They would then receive help from the company to move into mainstream employment – an option given to all the workers. Of this group only 52 are in now in permanent work.
The reasons behind the figures are not clear. Some former CCU workers allege they were offered redundancy and retirement packages that were impossible to refuse. They argue Remploy wanted them off its books because all the factories were set to close – something the company denies.
Remploy argues that sheltered employment is not a progressive environment for disabled people and that almost all can cope in mainstream jobs with the right support. It puts the average annual loss per factory employee at £23,000 – for each disabled employee at CCU this rises to £34,500 – and argues the resources are better spent on meeting its target of finding 20,000 jobs every year for disabled people by 2012.
The future of the factories is unknown. A 2008 report from Labour’s policy commission stated the party was “committed to helping” Remploy’s remaining factories compete for public procurement contracts.
But the GMB trade union’s Les Woodward, a convenor for the Remploy workforce, says this has not happened, leaving some workers with nothing to do.
“The government said there would be public procurement work coming into the factories but we haven’t seen any of that. There’s nothing more soul destroying for the workers than having to turn up and play cards and watch DVDs,” he says.
Last year was the first in a five-year modernisation plan for the factories. Remploy denies claims that its policy is to run the remaining units into the ground and says that, backed by the government, it is making a major effort to gain new business in a difficult economic climate.
For workers in the remaining factories, like city workers in failing banks, all eyes will now be focused on Westminster to learn their fate.
Anthea White, 57, does a paper round and Gina Nairn, 62, works part-time for two and a half hours a day cleaning tills in Primark. Ten months ago their situation were very different. Both held senior full-time positions at the CCU, but in March the unit closed its doors for the last time and was merged with another Remploy factory.
The 39 disabled workers were given the option of transferring to the other factory but only three chose to do so. On announcing the closures Remploy pledged to help all the disabled people affected to find permanent mainstream employment, but 10 months down the line just four of the workers are in permanent full-time positions.
Some, like White and Nairn, have managed to pick up part-time work, but others have not had a job since leaving CCU.
Nairn, who was team leader in the factory’s sewing unit for seven years and who has arthritis, found it difficult to find employment and feels let down by Remploy.
“I found my new job on my own [not through Remploy],” she says. “I applied for 17 jobs and I only got this one because a lady at a previous interview put my name forward. I wanted a job.”
White had worked for Remploy for 23 years, the last four at CCU as a quality inspector. She has a bowel condition and doubts she will find permanent employment. “I don’t think I will get a job. I feel we have been sold up the river,” she says.
Some of the workers had been at the factory for more than 20 years and occupied skilled positions cutting and sewing items including police protection suits, health care products and life jackets.
Voluntary redundancy was taken by 23 and 13 took early retirement. Most felt transferring to the other unit was pointless because they think it is also likely to close soon.
If they moved to another facility and were later made redundant they would have also received a smaller redundancy package, finishing up on a day rate rather than a shift rate, and missing out on a one-off £5,000 payment. So many feel they had little choice but to leave, and felt that was what Remploy wanted.
The timing of the Remploy closures could not have been worse. The workers were mainly expected to go into the retail sector – one of the most badly affected by the economic downturn. This coupled with potential discrimination from employers makes it hard for them to be optimistic.
Some of the workers put their number of rejection letters in the twenties and thirties. The prospect of becoming long-term unemployed in a time of recession looms heavily and many are becoming desperate.
Frank Wilson, 53, who has a heart condition, was a quality inspector at the factory and had worked at CCU for six years and for Remploy for 15. He says that work is now in short supply for the able-bodied and there will be little for disabled people.
In August 2008 Wilson (pictued left) found a job without Remploy’s help at local firm Ross Care, which reconditions and distributes wheelchairs, but left after three months, alleging he was exposed to paint fumes that affected his breathing. He says the company failed to make other allowances for his disability.
“I feel very discriminated against,” he says. “We had to take apart at least four wheelchairs a day, the same as the able-bodied people. There were no allowances made. I’m a proud fellow and I like to work. Companies say ‘we will support you’ but try getting a job with them and it’s a different matter.”
Shirley Dempsey, personnel manager at Ross Care, disagrees. She says Wilson’s disability was discussed with him and he felt confident his initial role was suitable. She says that when he was offered an alternative position, which involved lighter duties, he walked out without discussing any concerns and an answerphone message she left with him had been ignored.
An employment service is provided for the workers by Remploy recruitment branches in Birkenhead and Liverpool – there are 26 such branches in high streets around the country. The company aims to open 19 more by March 2010 but many of the workers are not impressed.
Paul Bragg, 38, has a skin condition and worked in the stores at CCU for six years and at Remploy for 20 years. He compares the service on offer at the Liverpool branch with that received by the unemployed steel workers in the film The Full Monty. “There were about 10 people just sat there picking up newspapers. I walked out,” he says. “I was in a skilled job and we were contributing.”
Others’ views of the branches are mixed. Some argue they do not provide enough support while others say that this was only true initially.
“They are nice people but they put all your details into a computer and it comes up that there’s nothing for you. The jobs are not there,” says Tony Peppard, 56, who has a detached retina and worked for Remploy for 22 years, finishing as CCU manager.
Remploy says its recruitment branches have found jobs for more than 5,200 disabled people since the first one opened in 2006 and that the company will find more than 7,000 jobs this year. It says the Birkenhead recruitment branch has 10 new suitable vacancies on its books each week and a good quality service is provided.
Alongside its high street branches Remploy runs work placement schemes. These arrange for people to go on placements with companies for three months and continue to be in receipt of their Remploy wages. At the end of this period the company will decide whether to offer the person a job. Peppard disagrees with the scheme because employers are in effect gaining free labour.
“If there’s a job there then people should be interviewed and if successful offered it straightaway,” he says. The unions have also raised concerns about the schemes arguing that they rarely lead to employment.
Remploy argues that the length of work placements is entirely for the workers’ benefit, enabling them to gain the confidence and skills they need to move into mainstream work. Work trials, of up to three weeks, which are designed to allow people to try out jobs without having to come off benefits, are also organised by Remploy. But Peppard claims few have succeeded.
Aled Jones, 40, worked at the CCU for its last two years and with Remploy for 10 years. He went to Royal Mail to work as a postman for a three-week trial organised by Remploy, but left after three days because he found the work too physically demanding for his bad back. He now feels it was wrong for him to be expected to carry out such a demanding role for free.
“The other postmen were saying ‘what are you doing? We don’t know anyone who would do this voluntarily’,” he says.
Remploy says that work trials are a tried and tested way of giving people experience of the workplace and the number of successful trials run to thousands. It alleges Jones was fully aware of what his trial entailed and was given opportunities to raise concerns. It adds that Jones failed to inform Royal Mail or Remploy he wanted to end the placement.
Royal Mail said it was unable to comment on an individual case but that it considered requests for work taster sessions if it helped people gain experience and that it had recruited more than 100 disabled people through three-month work placement schemes with Remploy.
The workers’ future is uncertain. The combination of empty days and rejection letters has led some to have counselling others are on anti-depressants.
Like many government policies Remploy’s initiatives are focused on getting the staff into work. But for many former Remploy workers their work at CCU was more than simply a job and, regardless of the economy and Remploy’s efforts, something that can never be replaced.
Remploy: the bare facts
● Remploy now has 54 factories employing just under 3,000 disabled people.
● 29 factories have closed, there have been 17 mergers and 12 straightforward closures, under a closure programme announced in May 2007.
● 2,193 disabled people were affected by the closures.
● 1,064 took voluntary redundancy and 710 opted for early retirement with a redundancy payment.
● 185 moved to other factories and 234 chose to remain on Remploy terms and conditions and wages and receive help from the company to move into mainstream employment.
● 52 of these 234 are in permanent jobs, 141 are in work placements that Remploy says will lead to permanent employment, and 41 are in pre-employment training.
Read about Community Care’s first visit to the workers, including Frank Wilson, at Birkenhead CCU before the factory shut in August 2007
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Published in the 29 January 2009 edition of Community Care under the heading ‘Remploy’s Bad Timing’