“Disabled people are tired of being painted in the headlines as scroungers and just ask for the individual support we need to have a fair opportunity to work alongside everyone else.”
So says Phil Friend, Vice Chairman of Disability Rights UK (DRUK), talking to the Daily Telegraph about the government’s decision to shut 36 factories run by government-owned supported employment company, Remploy, at a cost of 1752 jobs. The decision is part of the government’s response to the Sayce Review – published last year – which looked at how the government could better support more disabled people to get into mainstream employment.
There are (at least) two keys reasons why many in the disability rights movement (and beyond) actively welcome the move to close Remploy factories. One is cold hard economics: “Last year Remploy, which accounts for a fifth of the Government’s £320 million budget for specialist disability employment services, lost £68.3 million. Ministers say that it costs the taxpayer £25,000 to keep one Remploy factory worker in their job each year, and yet the factory bosses are paying many of their employees to do nothing, because of a lack of orders.“
The other is that, as Phil Friend’s comment illustrates, many disabled people see the Remploy model of segregated supported employment as patronising and out-of-date – believing that both government funds and mainstream employers should instead be focused on removing barriers that prevent disabled people from entering mainstream employement.
It’s at this cross-section of economics and disability politics that the issues for Remploy become particularly complicated. Len McCluskey, leader of the trade union, Unite, which represents many Remploy staff reacted to the closure by stating: “To choose to cut these jobs… is proof the Government has no intention of helping the most vulnerable in society.“
While it’s not surprising that a union leader is opposed to his members losing their jobs, the broader view that disabled people are vulnerable and need looking after by the state contrasts strongly with the outlook of DRUK and other activists who believe disabled people have a right to support that will enable them to gain work on equal basis to other people, as opposed to special help based on their vulnerability.
Disability campaigner, Kaliya Franklin, is broadly sympathetic to the DRUK view in principle but believes it fails to take account of the likely reality of life in the job market for former Remploy employees once their factories have been closed. She asks: “What about the employment prospects for those Remploy staff now redundant? Did anyone consider that of the previous employees made redundant from Remploy factories only eight per cent have been able to gain employment since? Why were proposals from workers to merge factories with valuable, well equipped, viable manufacturing space completely ignored?“
Whether or not we believe that Remploy’s current model is sustainable in the long-term or that its continuation is even desirable, the reality is that more than 1500 disabled people will soon be out of work and facing limited prospects for future employment. As the above quote suggests, governments of various stripes have a dismal track record in terms of helping people thrive in the world beyond supported work.
Many in the social enterprise movement are surprised that the government hasn’t seriously considered the option of supporting Remploy employees to move from supported employment to working for viable social enterprises.
Sally Reynolds, co-founder and former chief executive of Social Firms UK – the umbrella organisation that supports market-led social enterprises creating good quality jobs for people disadvantaged in the labour market – says: “For some obscure reason it’s missed mention thus far, but Remploy has been running a number of social enterprise pilot projects across the country for the last two years. These projects have shown that there are significant opportunities for those pilot project sites and possibly many of the other sites earmarked for closure…
Unbelievably, despite all of the work and effort put in over the last two years, the five social enterprise pilot sites are included within the round one phase of 36 factory closures, giving only a 90 day consultation period for exit strategies and proposals to be given consideration.”
It’s possible that some of the businesses created by Remploy’s social enterprise projects may be able to continue if they secure investment from elsewhere but it seems strange these sites haven’t been given longer to enable an assessment of whether or not the model is sustainable.
On balance, it’s probably the correct decision, but in terms of the broader questions about how the people most disadvantaged in the labour market might find jobs, this round of factory closures at Remploy is a decision that raises more questions than it answers.