REPOST ARTICLE SOURCE: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/apr/11/remploy-staff-reject-disabled-segregation
After 20 years working in a Remploy sheltered factory, there are few jobs Paul Effeny has not done. From soldering circuit boards, he has gone on to work in the kitchens and packaging electronics on the assembly line. These days he is an odd-job man, emptying bins and cleaning up.
For the 44-year-old, who suffers from severe learning difficulties, work on the factory floor in Barking, east London, with other disabled people has provided “support, advice, help and friends”. He has acquired professional qualifications and says his £246-a-week job buys him independence. “I pay rent, council tax, gas, BT, mobile,” he says.
But unless ministers announce a U-turn by August, Effeny – and the 47 other disabled people working at the Remploy factory – will be laid off and forced to look for work in “the mainstream“.
The government claims it can no longer bear the £68m of annual losses racked up by the 54 Remploy sheltered factories. So 36 sites, including Barking – where management says losses last year were £1.6m – will shut.
The prospect of life outside the secure Remploy factory is “frightening”, says Effeny. “I don’t want to live on the dole for the rest of my life. But I have worked somewhere else and a lot of bullying goes on.”
Granted exclusive access to the factory, the Guardian heard harrowing tales from staff about their time in mainstream employment. In his seven years working for a firm in Romford, Effeny said he was frequently called names, often had to endure a barrage of missiles and was occasionally hit by colleagues.
His most “frightening moment” was when two women tried to set light to his overalls – apparently as a joke – while he was waiting in the queue at the company canteen. When he complained to managers, his tormentors beat him up on the way home. Little wonder that Effeny felt distressed when the disability minister Maria Miller announced the Remploy closures in March. “I just flipped out when I heard.”
Whatever the sentiment in Remploy’s factories, ministers say they are an idea whose time has gone. Set up in 1945 to provide work for injured soldiers, the factories are in manufacturing sectors – such as electronics, textiles and automotive – which struggle to compete with cheaper foreign labour. Given the diminished role of manufacturing in the UK, critics complain skills learned there are no longer “relevant”.
The coalition argues that Remploy is now a relic of bygone nationalised age. Ministers say the state is paying £25,000 a year to keep each disabled person in a job in Remploy factories, and insists that money would be better used to fund schemes that would help disabled people retrain, fund specialist equipment to allow them to work, or pay for specialist help to keep them in mainstream jobs.
The trade unions dispute this analysis. In Barking, Unite’s Julie Haynes says the electronics division was in line for a £1m order to assembleRaspberry Pi, the credit card-sized computer for schools, until the ministerial announcement last month. The unions argue that Remploy factories make chemical warfare suits for troops in Afghanistan, produce parts for Jaguar cars, and make most of the furniture for schools and libraries. Haynes also says factory losses have been overplayed, not helped by a lack of investment and high administrative costs imposed from London. As an example, she claims the Remploy head office charges the Barking factory £200 a month to run an email account.
There is also an issue of timing. The closures will lead to 1,752 staff, including 1,518 disabled people, losing their jobs. Economists say that, given the parlous state of the economy, those made redundant will find it very difficult to find another job – according to the OECD, the likelihood of people with disabilities being unemployed in the UK is twice that of someone without a disability.
They will also be at the back of a very long queue of 2.7 million unemployed people. Claudia Wood, deputy director of Demos, suggested that “perhaps the government did the numbers too”. She says: “A year claiming employment support allowance [which replaced incapacity benefit] amounts to £5,000, which is still cheaper than the cost of supported employment [in a Remploy unit] for a year. But what about a lifetime of unemployment, and the costs to health services associated with the mental and physical effects of long-term unemployment?”
None of this appears to cut much ice in Whitehall. Iain Duncan Smith, the welfare and pensions secretary, has defended the move, saying the state should not fund “Victorian-era segregated employment”.
The Department for Work and Pensions said: “For many, Remploy factories can lead to institutionalisation and isolation of disabled people.”
This line of thinking is echoed by many disability organisations, long concerned that Remploy factories were a block in their attempts to shift policy towards “supporting disabled people to get in, stay in and get on in competitive open employment”.
This finding was at the heart of a government-commissioned report last year into disability employment by Liz Sayce, then chief executive ofRadar, the Royal Association for Disability Rights, which is now Disability Rights UK. She controversially called Remploy factories “ghettoes” operating a “glass ceiling … with non-disabled people largely running the organisation and disabled people working in it”.
It is this idea that separate workplaces get in the way of tackling bullying, harassment and discrimination that is provoking anger on the assembly lines in Barking. Stephen Whitlock, 42, who suffers from severe dyslexia and works on circuit boards, says his experience outside Remploy was “that employers put a lot of pressure to get things done quickly. It’s very pressurised. You get shouted at for making mistakes. I don’t want to go back to that. Imagine: I cannot even stack shelves in Sainsbury’s because I can’t read.”
Any plan to “include” disabled people in mainstream workplaces as a way of countering stereotypes and ensuring good practice is dismissed as “do-gooding gone bad”.
Mark Holloway, a GMB shop steward in Barking, who has cerebral palsy, says: “The fact is many staff have worked in mainstream employment. They had a terrible time. That’s why they don’t want to go back. Liz Sayce said we’re a ghetto. I would say we’re a community. People feel safe.”
Holloway, who has worked at Barking for 12 years, says the staff know former employees who took redundancy last year but have still not found jobs. He says successive governments, including Labour, have run down Remploy.
“We used to have 200 people working here. A lot of staff went when they took redundancy and they still come back and say ‘we are looking for work’. You are talking about people with families or who support elderly parents. Closing down the factory is a disgrace. I can tell you: at 45, I can’t see me working again,” he says.
The government argues that such fears are unfounded. To enable a disabled person to get into a “non-subsidised, non-segregated” job costs the state just £2,900 a year under the Access to Work scheme. It claims that for the same price as keeping the 2,300 Remploy staff in work, almost 20,000 people could be helped into mainstream positions.
Sayce told the Guardian that “tying the limited public funding for disability employment support into a system that segregates and doesn’t contribute to the overall economy seems both outdated and wasteful”.
She welcomed the government’s assertion that £15m of the cash saved from closing down Remploy will now be used to fund more places on Access to Work. Another £8m will be used to help unemployed Remploy workers find work. That leaves at least £40m in savings that can be returned to the taxpayer – or used to pay off the deficit.
There is little doubt that schemes such as Access to Work are popular with many disabled people. David Aldred, a lecturer in pharmacy at Leeds University, says he could only keep working because of support from Access to Work. The 37-year-old has a degenerative connective tissue disorder that causes an unbearable burning pain in his joints.
Once a keen cricketer and scuba diver, the condition is now so crippling that Aldred can no longer type or drive a normal car. Yet he can teach because the scheme allowed him to modify his car and install voice-recognition software on his computer, and pays for an assistant to help prepare lessons. “Access to Work is a lifeline and I could not continue with my job without it,” he says. “The alternative is a low-level job where I’d be bored, or being long-term sick.”