THE whole of the Remploy network of factories for disabled workers is under threat, because the government plans to limit the company’s funding to £550 million over the next five years.
Unions say a plan drawn up by accountants Price-Waterhouse-Cooper (PWC) envisages the closure of up to 53 of the remaining 83 Remploy factories, where highly-skilled work is carried out by disabled people, making everything from life jackets to vehicle components.
If those factories are allowed to close, then it will not be very long before the remaining 30 are wound up too, senior stewards warn.
But union leaders at Thursday’s press conference said they had an alternative plan, drawn up by another set of accountants from Grant Thornton, which could save the factories.
They said the plan could keep the factories open and stay within the government’s £550 million five-year funding limit at the same time.
Before the press conference Christopher Williams, Bridgend Remploy GMB, told News Line: We’re here today to give the trade unions’ presentation. Grant Thornton has carried out a financial review of Remploy and of its management group and they seem to think there is a future for the 83 sites.
‘We’ve presented their report, which has been carried out on behalf of the unions, to the Remploy board today.
‘The trade unions have proposed their own plan for Remploy to restructure Remploy from 12 businesses to three.
‘There is a place for Job Shops for people with disabilities, but to close at least 50 per cent of the factories to sustain it – especially when a number of charities already have Job Shops – makes no sense.
‘I think the government is behind this plan.
‘The government and local authorities can help us through the procurement regulations.
‘By rights, any authority can reserve at least one contract for any company that employs at least 50 per cent disabled people.
‘Not just in Britain, but throughout Europe, hundreds of millions of pounds is spent on contracts which Remploy could do.
‘But they are being outsourced to countries where there’s cheaper labour.
‘Over 5,200 disabled workers’ jobs are at risk.
‘They say there’s no compulsory redundancies, but the company is going through a policy of not replacing anybody who leaves the company, either through ill-health or retirement. It’s been going on for many years. They’re winding the company down.
‘If they can spend goodness knows how much on one trident missile why can’t they give Remploy more than £111 million a year?
‘Why not spend the money they’re spending on missiles and phoney wars on saving Remploy and getting more disabled people into employment?’
Brian Davis from Wigan said: ‘I’ve been in Remploy for 28 years.
‘The chances of me getting a job outside of Remploy are zilch.
‘I’ve got brittle bones and I get lots of fractures. If I was in an outside industry I wouldn’t be able to manage.’
He added: ‘In 1947 a Labour government decided it was a good idea to create Remploy. At that stage the country was on its feet after the war.
‘Now we’ve got a Labour government in the fifth richest country in the world but they would like to shut Remploy down and it will make them look like a Tory government wrapped up in Labour clothing.
‘Their double standards are disgraceful and that they think we will just sit there and let this happen is sad.
‘We’ll make the miners strike look like a tea party.
‘I know in my factory in Wigan, as soon as we hear it is one of the sites under threat we’ll barricade ourselves in, kick the management out and carry on our business as usual. We’ll do it ourselves.
‘I’ve also got two sons who want to work in the same Remploy factory as me and they’re only 16. What is their future if they can’t get into Remploy? It will be the dole.’
Phil Brannan, from the Springburn factory in Glasgow, said: ‘It’s a total betrayal by the Labour government of disabled people.
‘If they go ahead with the Price-Waterhouse-Cooper and the board’s recommendations, then it is the end of Remploy.
‘Although PWC said close 19, followed by 34 factories, that would leave 30 factories and within a short period of time these factories would be closed as well.
‘If that happens almost 6,000 people in Remploy won’t be re-employed, and if they are, it will be in dead-end jobs with low wages and poor conditions, in companies that don’t understand how to deal with disabled people and the problems with their disabilities.
‘Croydon closed a disabled workshop that they sponsored last year: 88 disabled people lost their jobs and as of now only four have been re-employed. That’s exactly how difficult it is.
‘The DWP last year gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, where by their own admission disabled people have been found work through Remploy’s offshoot “Interwork’’.
‘But within six months, the DWP’s own evidence said 50 per cent are no longer in employment.
‘The government’s drive to get people off long-term incapacity benefits is a con.
‘Disabled people who have been forced off long-term incapacity benefits will be forced into unsuitable jobs at the lower end of the market with even poorer conditions, and again with employers who don’t understand the problems of employing disabled people.
‘They’ll be reduced to living on lower benefits and doing unsuitable low-paid jobs for the rest of their lives.
‘The government’s attitude is a disgrace. In 1946, the then Labour government, leading a bankrupt country after fighting fascism in the Second World War, created Remploy.
‘In 2006, a Labour government leading one of the richest countries in the world wants to close Remploy down.
‘It’s unfortunate that Anne Maguire, minister for the disabled, knows the cost of Remploy but not the value of Remploy. She should immediately sack the board who’ve proved to be incompetent.
‘If Remploy were a public company and its board of directors brought them to this state, the shareholders would have sacked them and the government, as the only shareholder in Remploy, should do the same.
‘The disabled workforce in Remploy are not going to be cowed or bullied and we have the full support of the union membership – Remploy is 90 per cent unionised – to fight an industrial battle to save the factories and a political battle against the Labour government.
‘We fought the first Labour minister, Margaret Hodge, and defeated her plans for Remploy.
‘We’re confident with the support of the workers and public and MPs who are on our side, we’ll defeat the government.
‘We will take every step necessary. We will occupy the factories and conduct work-ins as well as other industrial action.’
GMB National Secretary Phil Davies told the press conference that ‘£830 million’ was needed to keep all the Remploy factories open and meet the company’s target of creating 20,000 jobs for disabled people in commercial factories.
But he said: ‘The government won’t give that.’
However, he said that, with the Grant Thornton review, all that was needed was an extra £48 million to make up a deficit in the pension fund – resulting from pension fund ‘holidays’ taken by the company in the 1990s – to save Remploy.
But Davies said only a summary of the Grant Thornton document would be released to union members and the press.
He said savings could be made on things like payroll, by switching to monthly pay, and big savings could be made on ‘management expenditure’.
He concluded: ‘We’re absolutely dependent on the Labour government. Without them we’re not going to win it. This is now becoming a very, very political argument.’
He said Remploy had a choice to either close its factories or go with the union-backed plan to improve sales and profit-margins.
Jenny Formby, TGWU National Secretary, said that Grant Thornton had given ‘a lot of credence’ to the trade union survival plan for Remploy.
Paul Bragg, GMB senior steward and Consortium member at Remploy in Birkenhead, said: ‘They’ve got to be stopped in their tracks and stopped from opening these branches.
‘We’ve agreed there should be some (Job Shops), but they should be opened in the factories, which could be a huge saving and would be much more accessible for disabled people.’
Brian Davis, GMB deputy-national convenor, from the Wigan factory, said if the company was suggesting closing so many factories and sending workers home, then ‘I might as well just cut my wrists and have done with it now, because I’m just not doing it.’
Christopher Williams, GMB branch secretary at the Bridgend factory and Consortium member, asked: ‘How many of the 80 workers who lost their jobs when Crosfield (a local authority-backed factory in Croydon) closed have got jobs now?’
Phil Brannan, senior steward in Remploy Scotland, said the Remploy board ‘has proved totally incompetent. This board must go or this company will go.’
Helen Goodman MP said: ‘I will do a mini-inquiry with other MPs and that will hear from Grant Thornton and then from the management and finally to do a session with the Department for Work and Pensions.’
She said that although the Grant Thornton document ‘is a very good piece of work, it hasn’t smoothed the way.’
Davies said: ‘I think the (Remploy) board will reject outright these proposals (by Grant Thornton) and say 25 to 30 factories have got to go, so it can’t be strung out.’