The long saga of the future of the UK’s Remploy factories stumbled to its latest painful milestone recently with the announcement that a further 36 factories will close by the end of the year, leaving just 18 of the original 100 factories that employed 10,000 disabled people at their peak. Remploy, meaning literally ‘re-employ’, was set up in 1945 by Ernest Bevin, then minister of Labour, and has employed disabled people to manufacture car components, furniture, textiles and more for the last 66 years.
The demise of Remploy began in the 1990s with the ending of the factories’ priority for government contracts by then Conservative minister Michael Portillo, and closures began in 1999. Now just 54 factories, employing 2,000 disabled people, remain. Battles have raged between the government and the management on the one hand, who have claimed the state subsidy is unsustainable, and the unionsand workers on the other, who have accused Remploy of persistent management failure to develop a viable business model.
The issue has been hugely divisive amongst the disability community. Although there is a consensus that segregated employment is not an inclusive solution to disability equality, the choice by some disability organisations to welcome the closures, despite the relentless campaign by Remploy workers to save their jobs, has caused serious unease. The government even commissioned Radar chief executive Liz Sayce to write a report recommending the end of Remploy.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Remploy from a theoretical perspective, what has been striking has been the failure to apply the totemic disabled people’s movement slogan “nothing about us, without us” to the Remploy debate. Disabled people who work in those factories have democratically decided to fight the closures, backed by the unions and Disabled People Against Cuts. Yet some of the charities who speak on disabled people’s behalves, many of whom are not democratic or run by disabled people themselves, have either been silent or sided with the government.
I am not in favour of segregated employment. I want to live and work with disabled and non-disabled people alike, and I want my children to play and learn alongside disabled and non-disabled children. But the sight of disability organisations cheerleading the government’s closure programme which will put thousands of disabled people out of work, a move those disabled workers oppose, is galling.
There is nothing progressive or inclusive about sacking disabled people en masse, particularly when those people are facing the toughest job market in recent times and too little progress has been made by employers to make the workplace accessible for all.
Most of all, the divisiveness of the Remploy issue has been a distraction from the political disability community uniting to challenge the continuing barriers to disabled people’s equality at work. If the social model of disability really is subscribed to, wherein the barriers society places to the inclusion of disabled people that need to be tackled rather than disabled people themselves, then the movement needs to start facing outwards to form a radical manifesto for employer-side change.
A revolution in flexible working, so that disabled people can realise their contribution to work without the constraints of a uniform mode of production, is a radical aim, but holds the key to equality at work for all of us. It could be allied to tax breaks or even compulsory measures to employ disabled people for large employers; compulsory disability awareness training in private and public sector organisations; positive discrimination to ensure representation of disabled people at work; mentoring schemes by senior staff; programmes specifically aimed at university students with disabilities.
Putting thousands of workers on the dole should be seen for what it is: another attack on disabled people that should unite disabled and non-disabled people against it. Remploy workers have found their voice and spoken clearly. Charities and others should think twice before drowning them out.