What is missing from this debate is the determination to be rid of the sheltered employment model that the Remploy factories represent, and that the disabled people’s movement has always criticised. This article is an attempt to fill that gap.
Remploy was set up, post World War Two, through the 1944 Disabled Persons Employment Act. The first factory, in Bridgend, Glamorgan, employed many disabled miners, though the purpose of Remploy quickly became to provide jobs for returning disabled ex-servicemen and women. The factories manufactured a range of goods, and were generally regarded as providing a safe job for life.
However, in the sixty years since Remploy first opened for business there have been massive changes. Firstly, the social context has changed: the focus now for disabled people – for which we have fought long and hard – is on rights and independence, on mainstream employment and inclusive education, on user-led organisations and organisations controlled by disabled people. We have rejected segregated provision.
Secondly, the general economic context is vastly different to that of the immediate post-war years; the strong manufacturing base that we had, and which supported the Remploy model, is no longer: it has been replaced by the service sector and the economy is also rapidly developing into an IT and communications base. Remploy planning and development has not really taken account of these changes.
Thirdly, of course, the current economic climate is dire with ever more austerity on the horizon, the decimation of welfare support for disabled people, and rising unemployment for the whole population. This third factor is often used - misguidedly, we believe - to justify the current calls to keep Remploy factories open.
Disabled people’s organisations have opposed Remploy for the last thirty years, arguing that the Remploy model is an out of date concept, it isolates people and prevents their integration into the wider world of work. This is illustrated by the understandable views expressed by Remploy workers that they want to ‘stay in their community’. There has been no apparent strategy of career development for the disabled staff, nor efforts to support people to move on and up in their careers. In fact, it is arguable whether Remploy actually does offer careers to disabled people.
The issues and motives behind the proposed closures are indeed complex, and there are no doubt many different agendas at play: this is why we feel it is so important to take a rigorous and analytical look at the situation, in the context of our struggle for rights and independence. The starting point has to be the recognition that disabled people’s jobs and livelihood are under threat, and this is just not acceptable, austerity or no.
As a basic principle, no disabled worker should become unemployed because of any proposed changes.
In 2011, 48.8% of disabled people were in employment compared to 77.5% of their non-disabled counterparts (1). The Remploy modernisation should not add to this deplorable statistic. And the fears of Remploy workers and their Trade Unions that they will not be treated fairly in the wider world of work are well-founded: according to the Office for Disability Issues, disabled people are significantly more likely to experience unfair treatment at work than non-disabled people. In 2008,19% of disabled people experienced unfair treatment at work compared to 13% of non-disabled people (2). In education the statistics are equally damning: disabled people are around twice as likely to not hold any qualifications compared to non-disabled people, and are only around half as likely to hold a degree-level qualification (3).
We quote these statistics to illustrate that there is an underlying pattern to the position of disabled people in society: this is not because disabled people are incompetent, or less clever, or more lazy than the rest of the population. No: disabled people as a group are excluded from the opportunities that the population in general has access to, and not enough is done to redress the balance. This barriers approach, or the social model, identifies the real problems – barriers and discrimination - and points the way to real solutions. So, put simply, the long term solution is to tackle the discrimination that disabled people encounter. Not easy, we know, and we need to revitalise that discussion nationally.
But what about the here and now? Is the best solution to keep the Remploy factories open? We believe not, that even in the current economic climate, to keep the factories open is simply to continue to segregate disabled people. There needs to be a negotiated solution which safeguards Remploy workers and remains true to the principles of the disabled people’s movement. It could look something like this -
a) A staged closure of the factories, and/or
b) Consider handing the factories over to User Led Organisations, with realistic investment, support and timeframes to establish sustainable businesses, and/or
c) All staff to move to new jobs, with appropriate support, training and qualifications guaranteed,
d) No-one to be unemployed as a result of the closures.
These suggestions now beg the question ‘what can “the movement” do?’ Most importantly, we must have the debate: our movement is fragmented and we should strive to build alliances based on diversity and respect. Secondly, we must remember our history, and the principles on which the disabled people’s movement is based and which we have used to push for changes in society and legislation. Crucially, we must jointly reconsider the wisdom of the simple demand to ‘keep the factories open’ and balance the arguments; for example, when the recession ends, should the Remploy factories be closed then? Why, and how? Finally, we need to fit the Remploy issue into a long term strategy proposal which addresses the discriminatory policies and practices that keep disabled people’s employment levels so low.
Breakthrough has been asked to sign up to a letter calling for the Remploy closures to be halted – available at the link below: we have found ourselves unable to support a call to keep the Remploy factories open but are keen to join with organisations to campaign for a good outcome, for the Remploy workers in particular, and for the wider population of disabled people in general.
The letter from Inclusion London, Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and others appeared in the Guardian on 10th May:
(1). Employment Labour Force Survey
(2). Quoting Fair Treatment at Work Survey 2008
(3). Labour Force Survey, Quarter 2, 2010
Our article has been featured in the Society Guardian: