Sunday, 20 May 2012

A Response to Breakthrough-UK's Stance on Remploy Factories

Last week Breakthrough-UK (B-UK) publicly released an email explaining why they would not put their name to a letter (this appeared in the Guardian on Friday 11th May) posted by Inclusion London, and others, calling to keep Remploy factories open.

B-UK, while not wishing disabled workers to lose their jobs, nonetheless proceeded to explain why, for the greater good of the disability movement, Remploy workers should willingly surrender to their fate, thus consigning themselves and 'segregated' employment to the footnotes of social history.

Unless you happen to be a blue-collar factory worker...
B-UK contend: "Firstly, the social context has changed: the focus now for disabled people – for which we have fought long and hard – is on rights and independence, on mainstream employment and inclusive education, on user-led organisations and organisations controlled by disabled people. We have rejected segregated provision."

The above statement contradictory. On the one hand it calls for the mainstreaming of disabled people into employment, while at the same time promoting user-led organisations controlled by disabled people.

Which is it? Disabled people should either enter mainstream employment and be given a fair chance to compete on level terms (this could by using means such as Access to Work and reasonable adjustments); or, we should form user-led organisations which we control and run.

The idea of disabled people running a company from top to bottom is great. But, wouldn't this create a more complete disability 'ghetto' (I use this word in honour of Margaret Hodge who first, charmingly, used this term to describe Remploy factories) than Remploy. For now you'd not only have disabled workers, but the managers would also be disabled!

Incidentally, the use of 'segregated' when discussing Remploy's supported employment model is both provocative and misplaced. Most people who work are, to a greater or lesser degree, segregated. The very nature of most work means the individual has sold their skills/labour to an employer for a given period of time. During periods of work it is generally accepted that this is not one's own time. The nature of work, which for a great many workers takes us away from friends, family, and the general public, can crudely be defined as segregation.

Remploy factories do not differ in this sense. Indeed, they replicate workplaces up and down the country in both the private and public sector. Remploy workers clock-in from 7.30 am to 9 am, depending on the factory and nature of their work. They can be sacked; and they can invoke grievance procedures against their employer. They work, mostly, around a 35-hour week; have progressive holiday and sickness entitlement schemes; and good health and safety conditions. None of this was gifted to them. No, they were union organised and fought hard for these Ts and Cs, just as thousands of other workplaces have fought over the years.

B-UK continue their thesis, thus: "Secondly, the general economic context is vastly different to that of the immediate post-war years; the strong manufacturing base that we had, and which supported the Remploy model, is no longer: it has been replaced by the service sector and the economy is also rapidly developing into an IT and communications base. Remploy planning and development has not really taken account of these changes."

There is grain of truth in B-UK's reasoning here. However, manufacturing still accounts for 12% GDP (whereas financial services only account for 9%) employing around 2.2 million workers.

But, you're right Remploy should have kept up with the markets and began diversifying 15-20 years ago. They should have looked to other industries to tap into. Indeed, some factories did invest in some areas of modern industry such as telesales and security monitoring.

But we, in the trade union movement, have been complaining to successive governments that depending on old trades and businesses was not the way forward for Remploy. Back in 2007 we even put forward an alternative business plan to Price Waterhouse Cooper (who were carrying out a Review of Remploy) that would have better exploited reserved contracts for supported factories and businesses. Our plan would have brought down the government subsidy per head in the factories massively; but, we needed time to make good decades of decay. One union officer felt that given the right kind of work and some time Remploy could go it alone without government money!

B-UK then decided to state the obvious, with: "Thirdly, of course, the current economic climate is dire with ever more austerity on the horizon, the decimation of welfare support for disabled people, and rising unemployment for the whole population. This third factor is often used - misguidedly, we believe - to justify the current calls to keep Remploy factories open."

As a trade unionist, misguided if we follow your line, I believe there is a very good reason to keep Remploy factories open. Because, they maintain a few thousand disabled people in meaningful employment. B-UK, your way points to despair and poverty for the overwhelming majority of Remploy workers should they become unemployed. There is a perversity, almost of a masochistic nature, in your reasoning around the existence of Remploy.

If Remploy was a co-operative or social enterprise ran by disabled workers for disabled workers you would doubtlessly bestow upon it a mark of approval. Would you then criticise it for segregating its workforce; or decry the fact that it was still publicly funded because now local authorities and councils were handing out subsidies and grants and contracts - where do you get your funding?

Your idea of handing factories over to User Led Organisations is not new. When the York factory closed several years ago throwing 54 people out of work; from its ashes rose a co-operative phoenix. This enterprise is still operating. It employs 3 people making garden furniture and two others to run the co-op (a buyer and manager I imagine). Sadly, the co-op is struggling; and I understand being helped by trade union donations.

Is this the model you think the rest of the Remploy factories should consider? There is nothing wrong with the concept of co-ops and social enterprises (except that SE's usually lead to privatisation, downsizing and a general race to the bottom for their employees). However, if you hadn't noticed we are in the middle of a double-dip recession; one that, if we look at what's happening in mainland Europe (which is like a 'get-out-of-jail-free-card' for this government) could make things even worse here.

Double-dip recessions, an increase in unemployment and the slashing of local authority and council budgets to the bone are hardly conditions conducive to starting up scores of co-ops and SE's in individual regions or several hundred nationally. Even if such enterprises were opened, they would still need the life blood of any business venture, orders in their books. Giving groups of people £10,000 to start up on their own account may sound generous; but, in reality it is like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound.

B-UK goes on to reveal: "This barriers approach, or the social model, identifies the real problems – barriers and discrimination - and points the way to real solutions."

At last we arrive at the crux of the matter. Remploy factories only exist because of societal barriers and discrimination against disabled people; and the social model of disability will save the day. Except of course, in the real world the 'social model', a social policy I wholeheartedly embrace, is always trumped by its bigger bullying brother the 'economic model' .

Finally B-UK, I see by your statistics that you supported 43 people into paid employment last year. Well done. From my experiences I am willing to bet the people you helped into employment were well educated and relatively young. In order for the nearly 2,000 unemployed Remploy workers to be re-employed it would take 46 B-UKs, as well as a mountain of employer prejudice to shift.  

If the government figures of 1.2 million unemployed disabled people wishing to work are true, then I ask you Breakthrough-UK how exactly you think adding another two-thousand people to the queue will do anything but add misery and heartache to another 2,000 people, their families and friends. Not to forget the economic impact of another 2,000 wage packets no longer contributing to the Treasury and local economies. Do you think that the social model of disability will somehow bring down this regime that purports to govern us. Do you suppose Iain Duncan-Smith is going to sometime soon have an epiphany that causes him to embrace the social model. At what point in our troubled history do you think employers will banish disability discrimination from their recruitment processes and open the door to us...

In the struggle

Seán McGovern

Unite the Union Disability Executive Rep

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