Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Systematic Destruction of Remploy Factories

For decades the trade unions involved in Remploy have been crying out for the reform of the upper management and board structure of the company. The company has a top-heavy management structure; a board composed of, what appear to be indifferent businessmen and women, some of whom have failed elsewhere and are now dining at the last-chance trough.

Failing to keep up with the various market and business trends, the Remploy board and the upper echelons of its management structure have for years managed the decline of the company; indeed, some claim it has operated a scorched-earth policy in cahoots with governments.

In the mid-1990s Michael Portillo, then Defence Secretary, stripped Remploy of a lucrative state contract, manufacturing military uniforms, using EU competitive tendering rules as an excuse. By the end of the 1990s, we, the trade unions, were beginning the fight to save Remploy factories.

Late in 1999 the company announced a closure/merger programme involving up to 20 factories. In February 2000 a 24-hour vigil outside Parliament by a few score Remploy union members and supporters excited enough interest and publicity for the, then, Minister Margaret Hodge to call the unions back to the table; and within three-days the company called a moratorium on closures.

Since then the Reserved Contracts 2006 (for Supported Factories and Businesses) has been in place. This allows individual factories to compete for public contracts under restricted terms. Yet, Remploy instead of embracing this opportunity, largely, ignored this opportunity for growth.

This isn't the first golden goose that Remploy has let fly from its clutch. Earlier in the 00s, though his links with the B&W Trades Council, Michael Eavis, he of Glastonbury fame, offered a million pound contract for festival t-shirts to a Remploy factory down in Cornwall (Redruth or Penzance I think).

Great, you'd think. A large contract, not the usual sub contracts of sub contracts etc, in the part of the world starved of decent manufacturing work - actually of any work! However, instead of jumping at this opportunity Remploy complained that it wasn't geared-up for the work; and that it would cost them £50,000 to get geared-up. It then took a trade union member to ask the Remploy area manager if he was familiar with the old maxim of having to speculate to accumulate...

Thus, over the past years we have seen Remploy factories decline through a combination of indifference, stupidity, wilful business neglect, lack of managerial insight, a refusal to stand up to governmental bullying and political expediency.

Forget medical, social or diamond models of disability. In reality, and given the individual-led society we live in, there is only one model of disability that counts; that is the economic model. If we can afford it you get it; if we can't afford it you go without. Or, as we're increasingly seeing if you are a disabled person worthy of our largesse, we'll think hard about giving; otherwise, go to hell you scrounging fripple.

The Remploy question has divided the disability movement since its inception. For my part I became involved in the movement around a decade ago; and worked for a short while in Brixton's Remploy factory sixteen-years ago. Anyone that thinks that Remploy segregates their workers from the outside world any more than 'mainstream' employment has never experienced the discipline of working in a factory, office, shop etc anywhere.

Guess what. Lots and lots of us in the workplace are segregated, in that we are contractually bound to work from x am to y pm, during which we surrender our time to our bosses. Most of us in work don't have the flexibility to come and go as we please. No, we are expected to be at our desk, workstation, bench etc for a given period of time during which we are segregated, separated, and kept apart from the people with whom we'd rather spend time.

It still annoys me today as it has for the past 16-years; that the purists within the disability movement still decry the very existence of Remploy factories. In their view there is no possible argument to support the need for such places as Remploy factories. These factories simply segregate disabled people from the outside world and they give employers an excuse for not employing disabled people - honestly, this is an argument I came up against constantly.

As a disabled worker and trade unionist I have fought against the Peter and Polly purists on the Left; and argued for the right of Remploy workers to have a degree of choice in where they work. Of course, in an ideal world we wouldn't have a need for Remploy factories. But we're not in an ideal world so we do have a need.

Historically, within TUDA and at TUC Disability Conferences there have been clearly defined lines on the Remploy issue. Time after time, on TUDA, I locked horns with, for the most part Unison, Comrades who denounced the entire programme of supported employment. Now, I could more easily accept their arguments were it not for the fact that they invariably worked in jobs associated with disability; either as disability consultants of one sort or another or for a voluntary sector organisation such as the Centre for Independent Living. Double standards are not the preserve of able-bodied people; no, we in the disability movement understand the usefulness of such devices.

So, it was ok for 'white' collared educated disabled people to work within the highly subsidised, and sometimes 'segregated' disability industry; but the 'mainstream' is the only choice if you're a 'blue' collared less educated worker.

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