Remploy workers strike over plant closures

Workers at Remploy, a UK state-owned company that provides jobs and employment services for people with disabilities, are campaigning to keep their factories open. In July 2012, the Government announced that 27 of Remploy’s 54 factories would be closed in 2012, with the loss of around 1,600 jobs. This followed the removal of public funding. The workforce responded with protests and strike action, but ministers say disabled people should be employed in mainstream jobs.

Factory closures announced

State-owned company Remploy was set up in the 1940s to provide employment for people with disabilities in the UK. It has a network of factories manufacturing a range of products, such as motor parts, furniture and protective clothing, for private and public sector clients. It also runs an employment services business, helping find jobs for people with disabilities.

In 2007–08, Remploy was told by Government that it had to implement a modernisation plan for its loss-making manufacturing arm. This involved the closure of 29 factories, the merger of some others, and the loss of around 2,000 jobs.

With the factories still losing money – €88 million in 2010–11 – the government announced in March 2012 that it was cutting funding for Remploy. The company identified 36 of its 54 remaining plants that it thought would not be viable without public support and launched consultations on their future, while holding talks with potential buyers of some sites. Financial incentives were offered for the continued employment of disabled people at these factories.

On 10 July 2012, Remploy and the government announced that 27 of the factories would be closed by the end of 2012, with the loss of 1,400 jobs, while talks continued with bidders for nine plants (ERM factsheet 21482). Around 200 other employees who remained on Remploy terms and conditions after their factories closed in 2008, usually working for other organisations under subsidised arrangements, are also under threat of redundancy.

The employees being made redundant will be offered a support package worth €10 million, including various forms of tailored help to find new jobs.

Workers call for industrial action

Trade unions representing Remploy staff, principally the GMB and Unite general unions, had been campaigning to keep the factories open as viable businesses. They pointed to encouraging recent sales figures, and criticised the consultation process as a ‘sham’.

After the closure announcement, and following membership ballots, the unions organised industrial action, including a series of one-day strikes. Two one-day stoppages in July, the unions claimed, were solidly backed by the workforce and attracted a high level of public support. The GMB and Unite suspended the strikes in August, although an overtime ban continues. They decided to refocus their protests on demonstrations and campaigning, notably around the Paralympic Games, being held in London from 29 August to 9 September 2012.

Remploy management said strike action would do nothing to secure the future jobs of staff, and expressed concern that it could deter buyers of the nine factories still up for sale. They also felt it would harm the future prospects of the company’s remaining 18 factories.

Ending ‘segregated’ employment

In 2011, the government commissioned an independent review of disability employment support. The resulting report, Getting in, staying in and getting on (1.47Mb, PDF), argued that that ‘segregated’ employment was not consistent with equality for disabled people, and that public funds should support individual disabled people rather than segregated institutions. The report also recommended that Remploy factories should no longer be under state control.

In announcing the Remploy closures decision, Maria Miller, the Minister for Disabled People, cited this report and stated:

It cannot be right that the government continues to subsidise segregated employment which can lead to the isolation of disabled people. This is no alternative to promoting and supporting disabled people in mainstream jobs, the same as everyone else.

The minister stated that the government budget for disability employment services, from which the Remploy subsidy is drawn, would be maintained, but spent ‘more effectively’. She added that it should be used in a way that is:

...consistent with what disabled people want, consistent with this government’s commitment to disability equality, and consistent with helping more disabled people live an independent life.

Unions challenge government rationale

As well as seeking improved redundancy terms for the Remploy workers, unions challenged the government’s arguments. They have questioned whether the redundant workers will find new work while the normal labour market difficulties for disabled people are compounded by the current recession. They also reject the argument that the Remploy subsidy would be better used elsewhere, on the grounds that other public schemes do not themselves provide job opportunities in the same way as Remploy.

In the words of Les Woodward, GMB National Convener at Remploy:

We believe that the reason for closing/privatising Remploy is based purely on saving money to pay for the financial crisis, while ostensibly using the well-worn ideology that Remploy factories do not provide meaningful work and are old-fashioned.

Mark Carley, IRRU/SPIRE Associates

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