Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Remploy's Final Chapter

Years ago I worked in the Remploy factory in Brixton. Tucked away off the main road a short distance from Brixton Town centre it stood in its own yard a 1960s build one-storey factory abutting a two-floor office building; much like any other light industrial unit in any of thousands of yards up and down the UK.

Indeed the similarity didn't end there; for once you pushed open the factory doors you entered into a veritable hive of industry. Casting an eye around the open-plan factory you'd have seen several production lines employing 30 or 40 people; while others sat or stood at individual workstations carrying out tasks such as soldering, complex wiring operations and testing of delicate computer boards and cards.

Bells would sound; signalling to small groups of workers break times. Off they'd traipse to a canteen at the far end of the shop floor, chatting to one and other; some engaging in horse-play, laughing and calling out to mates across the factory divide.

This toing and froing, hustle and bustle sound-tracked by the thrumming of tools, laughter and banter was the very theatre and music of industry.

However, this was a Remploy factory; and while replicating the average light-industrial workplace found in any city, town or edge of town industrial estate anywhere in the UK, there was one difference...all the shop floor staff and many of the white coats, indeed, were disabled.

In 1945 Britain had experienced six long and hard years in a state of war; now she was ready for a welfare state; and so Remploy was born. A company that employed disabled people giving them meaningful employment in a safe organised working environment.

From its first factory in 1945 at Bridgend, making violins, Remploy would over the years spread across Britain growing to over 10,000 factory employees in 84 sites.

So, what went wrong?

Thatcher and neo-liberalism is part of the problem; and, a lack of understanding of Remploy and disabled workers' choice, especially by the Left, and in particular by the purists within the disability movement, both contributed to the demise of Remploy factories.

Even six years ago when Europe eased public contract procurement regulations for supported employers, Remploy's board of directors sat on their hands. Instead of fighting for these contracts they made no effort; never bringing in more than around 20% of public contract work.

Then the axe came to drop; and 4½ years ago, to their everlasting shame, a Labour government began the mass closure of Remploy factories - 30 closed in March 2008.

A survey carried out, earlier this year, amongst the 2,500 Remploy workers who took redundancy in 2008 pointed to 85% of them no longer in full-time employment. The Class of 2012 can expect to fare far worse.

As an ex-Remploy worker and Branch Secretary (from 1996 to 2012) I have been involved with my Branch and membership in struggles to keep factories open since 1999. In that time my Comrades, from within and without Remploy, have tirelessly fought and supported the concept of disabled workers' choice.

In the last Campaign, beginning in 2007 and ending in 2008, the trade unions threw all their political and organisational weight behind the Remploy Campaign. Unite (still in its component Amicus and T&G state), the GMB and Community produced an alternative business plan; we embarked on a Remploy Crusade touring the country Remploy factory site by factory site.

I criss-crossed Britain with other Unite Branch activists attending rallies and demos in England, Scotland and Wales; yet, despite our efforts the factories closed.

Four years on the war recommenced. This time the government went right to the heart of the established disability movement and handed a purse of silver to Liz Sayce, then the CEO of RADAR (an organisation along with others that had helped stab us in the back in 2007), to supply them with a report on disability employment support.

Sayce played up to the gallery, just as her paymasters expected. She condemned both Remploy and residential training courses as too costly while recommending Access to Work to the government.

What you won't find within the pages of Sayce's partial findings is the true feelings of thousands of Remploy workers who she chose to ignore; instead she cited the views of the minority whose agenda chimed with her own.

Needless to say, Liz Sayce's reputation within the disability movement, as well as that of her new organisation (DRUK) who are still vociferously backing the government's closure programme, is much damaged. 

Fast forward to today. Despite a number of strikes across almost all Remploy factories; despite thousands of letters written to MPs, ministers, councillors and politicians of every stripe and stature by workers, their families, friends and supporters; despite bill-boards attacking this disgraceful action; despite a 100,000 signature petition handed into the PM; despite the double-dip recession with its attendant hardships of cuts and mass unemployment (most yet to happen); despite all these actions, this stony-hearted government, which seeks solace in its ideology, refuses to budge from destroying the jobs, hopes and aspirations of 1,518 disabled Remploy workers.

Comrades in Remploy, the fight goes on, as it must. Unite remains steadfastly behind your cause. If your factories close in the next few weeks it will not be from the want of effort from you and the trade unions, Unite, GMB and Community.    

No comments:

Post a Comment