Remploy is a government-funded company set up to provide employment for disabled people.
It originally had 83 factories but in May 2007 it announced plans to close down 43 of these, 32 straightforward closures and 11 mergers, arguing that the units were not cost effective and putting the average annual loss per factory employee at £23,000. In November 2007 it published a revised five-year modernisation plan which reduced the figures to 12 closures and 17 mergers which took place in March 2008.
Remploy now has 54 factories employing just under 3,000 disabled people.
2,193 disabled people were affected by the closures.
1,064 took voluntary redundancy and 710 opted for early retirement with a redundancy payout.
185 people 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.
Of this group at the time of writing, January 2009, 52 of these 234 people are in permanent mainstream jobs, 141 are in work placements that Remploy says will lead to employment and 41 are in pre-employment training.
It is not clear how many of the workers who chose to take voluntary redundancy have found mainstream employment. At one merged factory contacted by Community Care , the Birkenhead Central Cutting Unit, this figure stood at four people out of 23.
The closures led to several strikes – one of which was at the Birkenhead CCU.
Latest Remploy articles
The five-year modernisation plan, November 2007
The modernisation plan quickly received backing from the government angering the unions (GMB, Unite and Community). Alongside the closures it includes a 25% cut in management numbers, and a targeted 130% increase in income from public sector contracts to £461 million over the five years.
Under the plan, the company must remain within its public subsidy of £111 million a year. Without the factory closures and other changes it says it would have been spending £171 million annually by 2012. However, the unions claim the reduction could have been achieved without any closures and instead by reducing overhead costs and limiting spending on Remploy’s employment service to £31 million a year, not £34 million as proposed in the plan.
The plan said the remaining 54 factories would continue operating subject to satisfactory progress in reducing costs and if they could increase sales. This included an expected increase in public procurement contracts, but the unions say this is not happening and there is little work, with workers sitting around watching DVDs and playing cards in some cases.
Remploy says it is doing all it can to bring work, including public procurement contracts, into the factories but this is providing difficult due to the recession.
On announcing the closure proposals Remploy pledged that no disabled person would be made compulsorily redundant and they would be helped to find jobs with local employers and remain on their Remploy wages, terms and conditions until they were successful.
It argues that the factories are not cost-effective and that sheltered employment is not a progressive environment for disabled people. It says almost all disabled people can work in mainstream jobs with the right support and that resources are better spent on meeting its target of finding 20,000 jobs for disabled people by 2012.
The company has 26 recruitment branches to help disabled people, including the workers, to find employment, on high streets and in city centres. It aims to open 19 more by March 2010.
It says 5,200 disabled people have found jobs through the branches since the first one opened in 2006 and that the company will find more than 7,000 people jobs this year.
Alongside its high street branches Remploy runs work placement schemes. These involve people going on placements with companies for three months and continuing to receive wages from Remploy. At the end of the placement the company will decide whether to offer the person a job. Some of the workers and the unions disagree with the scheme arguing that in effect employers get labour for free and question the amount of employment it leads to.
Job taster sessions of up to three weeks, which are designed to allow people to try out jobs without having to come off benefits, are also arranged by Remploy.
The charities response
Mencap, Mind, Leonard Cheshire, Radar, Scope and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People support the direction of the Remploy proposals. But the Royal National Institute of Blind People has criticised its counterparts for giving “unequivocal support” to the plans.
An RNIB spokesperson says that, although it is important to help disabled people into mainstream employment, there needs to be a “halfway house”, where workers are provided with support and a job.
“Otherwise, what you have is a black hole between the supported work environment and the mainstream. You need to build a bridge between the two.”
The Unions and the workers
The workers and the unions argue that some people’s conditions mean mainstream jobs are not appropriate and they should at least have the option of going into sheltered employment. They say discrimination is still rife amongst many employers, making their employment prospects bleak.
The economic climate
Remploy workers’ job prospects have been hit hard by the timing of the closures. The workers argue that with work now hard to come by for the able bodied they have little chance of getting jobs.
They were largely expected to gain employment in the retail sector, one of the hardest hit by the recession.
The future of the remaining factories
The future of the factories is uncertain. Some of the workers fear they are being run into the ground, but Remploy denies this. It says it is working hard to get contracts but the economic climate is making them hard to come by.
The unions have written to more than 50,000 councillors, school governors and police authority members, urging them to increase their business with the employment provider for goods such as electrical appliances, wheelchairs and office furniture.
They argue that Remploy has failed to take advantage of changes in European legislation that allows public authorities to award orders to supported workshops without going through the competitive tendering process.
New chief executive
Tim Matthews succeeded the previous Remploy chief executive Bob Warner in October 2008.
Matthews was chief executive of Guys and St Thomas’ NHS Hospital Trust from 1993-2000 and ran The Highways Agency from 2000-3, before moving to the private sector.
Personal testimonies from workers at Birkenhead Central Cutting Unit, one of the merged factories
Anthea White, 57
Anthea White delivers papers and calls herself the oldest paper girl in the Wirral. She had worked at Remploy for 23 years, the last four at the Central Cutting Unit as a quality inspector. She has bowel problems.
“I don’t think there’s much chance of me getting a job. I have stomach complaints. Personally I think they have led us down the river,” she says.
Frank Wilson, 53 (pictured right)
Frank Wilson, who has a heart condition, was a quality inspector at CCU and had worked at the factory for six years and with Remploy for 15 years.
He initially transferred over to work at the other Remploy factory in Birkenhead (the one which the CCU was merged with) but says he wasn’t made to feel welcome and left after five weeks.
“I went over primarily because I knew that I had to earn an income. Certain people made it difficult. They objected to certain things I had said through the campaign (to keep the factories open),” he says.
In August 2008 he got a job at Ross Care, a local company which reconditions and distributes wheelchairs without Remploy’s help but left after three months alleging the paint and the paint thinners were affecting the way he breathed. He was moved to a different position at the company but left after still being affected by the fumes.
“I was told you have got to go on the jet wash and break down the wheelchairs. I wasn’t even asked if I liked the new job or whatever. It was still really near the paint stuff also,” he says. “I feel very discriminated against. We had to do a minimum of four wheelchairs a day the same as the able bodied people, there were no allowances made.”
Shirley Dempsey, personnel manager at Ross Care disagrees with Wilson. She says his disability was discussed with him and he felt his initial role was suitable. She says when he was offered an alternative position, which involved lighter duties, he walked out without discussing his concerns and an answer phone message she had left for him had been ignored.
Wilson says the Remploy recruitment branch in Birkenhead was initially inadequate but it has now improved.
“It wasn’t them. It was the system. The people in there were trying their hardest but they didn’t have the contacts and there wasn’t enough space in the office. It was overwhelmed and not able to deal with the numbers of people who required help.”
“This time round they contacted me and I went to the local job centre plus and they contacted Remploy. Now I feel a bit more satisfied,” he says.
Wilson describes himself as not doing anything. He has recently applied for a security job and is waiting to hear back.
Wilson has recently received a letter from the government asking him to state what his disabilities are relating to the benefit he receives and he is seething. “James Purnell (the work and pensions secretary) has sent me this when the government took my job off me in the first place.
“I’m a proud fellow. I like to work. I want to be in employment. It doesn’t bother me what I do as long as long as I get satisfaction from it. It’s very difficult. If I don’t get a job soon it is going to be very bleak and I don’t think my health is going to improve.
“Companies say we will support you but try getting a job with them and it’s a different matter.”
Paul Bragg, 38
Paul Bragg has a skin condition and worked in the stores at CCU for six years and at Remploy for 20 years. In July 2006, he went to see Angela Eagle, the MP for Wallasey where the factory is based, but to no avail.
He feels the service he received from his local Remploy recruitment branch was inadequate.
“When I attended the Remploy high street branch in Liverpool they said you need to get your CV together and get ‘job ready’. There were about ten people sat there picking up newspapers. It was like the job club in the film The Full Monty. I walked out. I was in a skilled job and we were contributing.
“I’m on incapacity benefit now and am signed off from working. Christmas wasn’t anything special. It is when you have time with your family but it was just like any other day.
“I’ve even invested in an electric razor because I can’t be bothered to shave. It’s soul destroying.”
Bragg thinks all the factories will be shut down shortly. “It’s only a matter of time and we are only putting off the inevitable.”
Mark Hewitt, 41
Mark Hewitt is deaf in both ears and has been with Remploy for ten years and was at the CCU for six. He has applied for 24 jobs but to no avail.
“I have been down the Remploy ‘joke shop’ (job shop). They put me in touch with Royal Mail and from 1st December – 23rd December I worked everyday on the minimum wage at the Liverpool depot (as a Christmas casual).”
At the time Hewitt met Community Care, early January, he was waiting for a call from Royal Mail to find out if they had any more work for him.
“There isn’t any jobs. Where are the jobs? I’m very disappointed. My bank balance is getting low and my self esteem is getting low and I feel like murdering some MPs. I will never vote Labour again.”
Anne Virgo, 52
Anne Virgo has bowel and stomach problems and has worked at CCU for seven years.
“I think they need places like Remploy because it took me six years to get that job. Nobody wanted to know and they didn’t want to take me on.
“The difference with somewhere like Remploy is they understand when you don’t feel well and you have to go to hospital appointments. It’s a necessity really because those places are needed. I know it sounds like we want to be segregated but we just want to be employed with other disabled workers.
“We used to look forward to going to work. When you have lost your job you get withdrawn into yourself and it’s hard to get out and meet people.
“My husband has to do all the cleaning. I do bits and bobs. There are people a lot worse off than me. It’s alright for Gordon Brown to go on about jobs being available but there are quite a lot of disabled people who can’t actually do certain jobs.
“There’s lots of places closing for the able bodied now so there’s not going to be any work for the disabled.
At the end of the day they want a life like anybody else and they want to be a part of a community.”
Christopher Lewis, 51
Christopher Lewis has nerve problems and has applied for 39 jobs.
“The staff at the Remploy employment service have been very good. It’s employers’ attitudes and the credit crunch. The disability employment advisor at Job Centre Plus has told me employers are finding loop holes in the system not to employ disabled people.
“I worked in the central cutting unit. I was a spreader and bundled material. I worked for Remploy for 26 years. 21 years in Unit 4 (the other factory in Birkenhead) and I was five years in the central cutting unit.”
He has been out of a job for ten months and has had bad experiences of brief stints in mainstream employment over this period.
“I feel demoralised. When I worked for Remploy I was in a good pension scheme and the staff were understanding about my disability.
“The government wants to get people off incapacity benefit but there are people with disabilities who don’t need to be on incapacity benefit and Remploy would be the ideal place to put them into work.
“I fear that I am going to become long-term unemployed. I do fear that I’m going to find it very difficult.”
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