Westminster’s War On Disabled Workers

[First printed in The Morning Star, 28/04/2012]

“It’s not a day centre,” Ray Dearman booms. “I had a bloody hard job.”

The former forklift driver is close to tears, but the small crowd of disability campaigners and trade unionists cheer him on: “Our people rely on working in Remploy factories because they’re treated with respect.”

Dearman would know. He was cut loose after twelve years when the state-owned enterprise’s Brixton factory shut up shop in 2008. He says he hasn’t been the same since.

Between rising unemployment and employers’ prejudices against his learning disability, his career in the four years since has consisted of a single three-week work experience scheme at Asda.

Meanwhile the dehumanising nature of long-term unemployment has brought on bouts of suicidal depression, he says: at one point a decorator’s firm offered him 1p a day to deliver their rubbish to the local tip.

“Since December I’ve been told to write poetry. But that’s not a job. Remploy was a job and I was proud of it.”

Ray Dearman’s job is long gone. But thousands of workers just like him face the same bleak future under Con-Dem plans to close the country’s entire network of Remploy centres over the next two years.

The first wave announced in March will see 36 of its 54 centres shut down within months, a move that would leave around 1700 workers – 88 percent of them legally disabled – on the dole during record levels of unemployment.

Tory minister for disabled people Maria Miller has insisted the cuts are about moving disabled people towards independence: the factories currently run at a loss, while money saved could be spent on employment support services.

While trade unions have dismissed the scheme as farcical – laying off people so the government can help them look for jobs – some of Britain’s bigger charities have surprisingly backed the move: Radar’s own chief executive Liz Sayce shored up support for the closures in June with a report assuring a “total consensus among disabled people’s organisations and charities that the factories were not the model for the 21st century” [PDF].

But grassroots activists like Disabled People Against The Cuts say the report’s high-minded ideals leave no room for the real-world ramifications: mass unemployment, widespread employer discrimination and swingeing cuts to both benefits and social services.

Consider Dearman, one of more than 1600 Remploy workers caught in a 2008 cull when Labour’s then-work and pensions secretary Peter Hain shut down 29 factories. Looking to assuage public anger, Hain promised that “all those disabled workers who move into new employment will have all their terms and conditions, including membership of their final salary pension scheme, protected.”

But that promise turned out depressingly easy to keep, as a survey by the GMB, Unite and Community unions found.

Canvassing the axed staff a year later, the results were predictably appalling [PDF]: of 735 respondents, just 26 percent said they had landed another job in the intervening year. Only 14 percent said Remploy had supported them to find new work, compared to 69 percent who said they had no help at all.

And even those who had found work were seemed no better off: just five percent reported better pay; 4.5 percent better leave arrangements. Just six percent said their new job came with a pension scheme, and fewer than one in ten reported a sick pay scheme — a crucial requirement for workers with disabilities.

Bear in mind these figures were reported in March 2009, when the Office for National Statistics pegged unemployment at 2.03 million – the highest it had been in over a decade. Three years on, that figure has risen again by more than a quarter to 2.65 million, according to last week’s official figures. And when workers with disabilities have barely half the average employment rate, the prospects for Remploy’s remnants are grim indeed.

Noone – shop stewards like Ray included – doubts that the current business model isn’t working, with the quango running at a loss and contracts few and far between. But where politicians see the congenital dull torpor of public funding, trade unionists blame a bloated management structure and successive governments’ failure to push it as a source of public sector procurement.

Despite the 2008 layoffs, a commons committee heard last year that Remploy still retained 1.6 managers for every 10 workers on the shopfloor – and paid them a combined £1.8m in bonuses last year alone.

And in November the union’s researchers reported nearly half Britain’s local authorities did not have contracts with Remploy factories, despite a 2004 EU directive that specifically allowed them to reserve contracts for that purpose.

Whatever the solution – purging the management, reinvention as a mutual or co-op, re-electing an actual labour movement – the sentiment on the shopfloor is clear. ‘Supporting individuals’ is simply ‘divide and conquer’ by another name.

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