Article, interviews and reports
For months the Con-Dem government have stated their intention to close 36 out of 54 Remploy factories across the UK.
Remploy workers had already voted overwhelmingly to take strike action on 19 and 26 July to save these plants and the related jobs.
Now this has added urgency because on 10 July the government announced the closure of the first 27 plants, possibly by Christmas.
This is a further attack on disabled people who want to have a choice of what form their working lives take, whether it’s supported employment or mainstream employment.
Remploy factories play a vital role in helping disabled people have a sustainable, independent working life as opposed to being left to rot on the unemployment scrapheap, reliant on ever diminishing benefits.
The plants were originally developed to ensure wounded returning soldiers from World War Two had a job.
It stands alongside the NHS as an historical legacy won through the Labour government elected in 1945.
This was as a result of the pressure of working people to avoid the miserable fate that faced those who survived World War One, who were promised ‘a land fit for heroes’.
Now these disabled workers, along with the rest of the working-class are targeted to pay for a crisis caused by the greedy and corrupt bankers and the tax-avoiding rich – all represented by this cabinet of millionaires.
It’s a scandal that 2,000 disabled people were made redundant in 2008 when the New Labour government closed 29 Remploy factories.
The majority of these are now living a life in poverty on benefits. This is the future facing Remploy workers today if the Con-Dem government close these factories.
Contrary to the view of the Sayce report for the Department for Work and Pensions and Tory minister Iain Duncan Smith, Remploy factories are not ghettoes of out-dated employment.
They are manufacturing facilities that employ skilled workers who produce high quality products. Unfortunately the skill and loyalty of these workers has not been matched by senior managers who have displayed a dismal record of mismanagement in recent years.
Remploy senior management received £2 million in fat cat bonuses while at the same time failing to bring work into the factories!
The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) fully support the Remploy workers in their fight to keep their factories open through these strikes and whatever action these workers deem necessary, up to and including factory occupations. We urge all trade unionists and the general public to join us in the campaign to defend Remploy workers now!
By Rob Williams, National Shop Stewards Network
Newcastle and Gateshead
At both the Newcastle and Gateshead Remploy factories all available workers turned up for the picket line.
Both the picket lines were lively, and they were clearly being well supported by other workers who were tooting support as they passed.
At Gateshead Colin Hoggett (factory team leader and senior Unite Rep) told us: “We have workers here who are disabled who haven’t had a day’s sick leave in years.
“One is deaf and without speech, he hasn’t had any sick leave in 18 years. But even with these records, because of their disabilities, who are going to employ them?”
Colin went on to say that as their team leader, “I have never seen a harder working workforce in my career.”
He ended by saying, “I don’t know if you’ll print this, but on a personal note I can’t wait until the people of this country get the opportunity to get this mad man (Cameron) and his ConDem government out.”
Jim Dobson (factory leading hand and GMB Rep) said, “The workers that were left from the last round of redundancies have all pulled together.
“Were are all these people going to go?” Jim pointed out that of those made redundant by Remploy in 2008 – 80% are still unemployed.
At the Newcastle picket line, Brian Guthrie said: “The government owns Remploy – so why aren’t the board accountable to ordinary workers?” At the factory in Newcastle they produce high quality beds.
Brian explained, “We used to go around all the big exhibitions, such as Ideal Homes.” However, these visits were stopped.
Brian continued, “If you don’t get to these exhibitions – how do you get your name about? We used to get orders from Slumberland, Silent Night etc.
“But because we no longer put ourselves out, we get forgotten about.” He ended saying that, “We always got the mattresses out on time and to the quality requirements.”
David O’Malley, Unite picket, explained that he has worked in Remploy’s woodmill for 27 years: “When I first came here there was 17 men working here, but over the last 12 years the factory has been run down – now there are only 7.”
He went on to describe: “When people have retired they haven’t been replaced.” This has clearly been a decision made by the board over a number of years.
Like other Remploy workers David set out the high quality of workmanship, telling us: “We used to manufacture fire surrounds for Katell, which is a renowned firm, known for its high quality.
“People have the impression that Remploy workers are disabled, so the quality is second rate, but this is definitely not the case.”
Ian Emmerson (Remploy Unite Rep), alongside many other Remploy workers had been annoyed at the remarks made by Works and Pension secretary, Ian Duncan Smith. “IDS says we all sit around drinking tea and coffee.” However, when the Newcastle Remploy factory was hit by the recent floods, “all the workers turned up and helped clear up the mess.” Another worker said, “We are extremely loyal, but we’re getting nothing for that loyalty.”
Just before leaving the picket line we spoke to John Harris (GMB). He said: “It’s hard to put into words how we feel.
“The main thing is the fear about how we are going to find jobs in the current market. For instance one lad on the shop floor has already applied for five jobs – but no response.
“We were told there are jobs and opportunities for us. But in reality – there is nothing.”
John went on to say: “I could go on all day about how the government has run things down. We haven’t been allowed to advertise locally that we make beds.
“One company, when they heard of the threatened closures, pulled the plug. This particular company has taken on some Remploy workers, but they hand-picked five of the fittest workers.
“The more severely disabled – didn’t stand a chance. Yet everyone in the factory was doing the same work.”
Many of the Remploy workers pointed out that whilst the number of workers has been run down over the years, there has been an increase in the number of senior managers and directors. “Twenty years ago there were 150 of them, now there are 400.” There was a lot of anger towards senior management who are well paid, get big bonuses and ride around in flash cars hired by Remploy.
Video from Leeds Remploy picket line, with interview with Remploy steward (interview starts about 15 seconds in)
Between 60 and 70 Remploy workers and supporters turned up this morning in Stoke to support strike action against the closure the Remploy factory
Over 90% of delivery lorries refused to cross the loud and defiant picket line. Banners from PCS, CWU, North Staffs TUC and more joined the many Unite flags to create a colourful backdrop to enthusiastic applause and cheering given to every lorry that turned round.
Stoke-on-Trent has a high level of unemployment and Remploy workers are only too aware that closure of their factory will mean a lifetime on the dole for many.
Dave told us, “There used to be three Remploy factories in North Staffs employing a few thousand workers. If this last one goes there’s no hope of finding another decent job”
Local New Labour MP’s Joan Whalley and Rob Flello spoke at the rally and rightly berated the Con Dem government for their callous treatment of “thousands of Remploy workers” and pledged support to their struggle.
What they neglected to mention however was that the other two local Remploy factories were closed by their own New Labour government – one as part of 2000 Remploy workers nationally who lost their jobs in 2008.
If New Labour MP’s are serious about their new found support for Remploy workers then they should commit an incoming New Labour government to reopening any closed Remploy factories and restoring all sacked workers who still want to work there.
Barking, East London
Thirty Remploy workers formed a confident picket line across two entrances of the biggest Remploy factory in London.
GMB and Unite flags were joined by banners from other local union branches and campaigns. Unite reps on a training course called by to offer support.
None of the Con-Dem cuts are necessary but this cut is particularly vicious. For a paltry saving, the government is prepared to throw hundreds of disabled people onto the scrap heap.
Any claims that this is to stop segregation make your blood boil – where are the jobs, where is the support, for these workers to make a transition to a “normal” workplace?
One GMB member explained: “I worked in a different factory for seven and a half years before coming here.
“I hated it – I was constantly bullied. Coming here has been great for me. I’ve worked here for 21 years. I’m much more comfortable here, I’ve made friends.”
A lot of the people working at Barking have family members who are also disabled or in need of support. What was worrying them was that if Remploy factories close, it’s not only themselves who suffer, but what future will there be for their families?
One said: “Just because we have a learning disability we’re treated like second class citizens – we can be kicked out and shouldn’t be seen and shouldn’t be heard”.
Paul said: “I’ve been on eight or ten protests to fight for our jobs here. We marched to parliament. But this is the first time I’ve had to go on strike. We’ve got no choice.”
Barking Remploy GMB shop steward Mark Holloway said
“This dispute is about the closure of the Remploy factories. The government has made a decision that Remploy will close.
“There are 54 Remploy factories nationwide. They produce a good standard of goods. It will cost thousands of disabled people the opportunity to work and condemn them to a life on social security.
“Remploy provides an opportunity for disabled people to work in an environment that is safe and which understands their special needs, and gives them an opportunity to contribute to the local and national economy.
“It is far better than a life on benefits. Remploy factories are like small communities. A lot of people have leaning difficulties and are challenged but they feel safe and they make friends and do a day’s work.
“Remploy work also gives respite to the parents, carers and social workers that have to look after them.”
Pete Mason & Paula Mitchell
Significant picket line at Huddersfield Remploy by Paul Wheelhouse, former TUSC election candidate. Two Asian women workers went into work and then came back out before clocking on, to join the strike greeted by cheers
On Thursday 19 July Remploy Unite members in Portsmouth joined the picket lines to show their opposition to the threat to jobs.
Rosemary has worked at Remploy for 35 years: “This is my life. If this place closes, would we get other work? This was a job for life. If it closes it will affect everything, including our pensions.”
Gary added: “I can’t remember the last person they took on. People want dignity, a wage, people have a right to work.
“Cameron says we sit around drinking tea. That’s not true. If we haven’t got work here we do maintenance and cleaning duties. What Remploy needs is investment in new machinery and new contracts.”
The Unite steward in Portsmouth Remploy said: “Whoever takes over here wants to reduce disabled people to 51% of the workforce. Our members want security and to know their future. We need to get people back into work.
“We have young people here on eight week work experience; they should be offered jobs here. I’ve worked here 34 years.
“I’ve been amazed at the support here today.”
Pickets were out at all nine Remploy plants in Wales as workers struck against the immediate closure of 27 plants (five in Wales) plus threats of closure to the rest. The Con Dem government is trying to destroy Remploy as a public sector industry that provides meaningful and useful employment to disabled workers.
There was a fantastic turnout on the Remploy picket line in Swansea. Nearly all of the shop floor were there and they’ve been joined by trade unionists, anti-cuts campaigners and NSSN supporters.
Pickets are bitter towards the Con-Dem government – Spencer showed me his T-shirt with ‘Maria Miller Factory Killer’ on the front and an attack on Ian Duncan Smith (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) on the back. Duncan Smith, remember, showed how out of touch the Con-Dems are with his comments about Remploy workers – ‘should get proper jobs instead of making tea all day’. The Swansea plant makes office furniture not tea. Steve’s comments about the Con-Dems are unprintable!
There was a more mixed reaction to the proposals of the Welsh Government to subsidise employers to take on redundant Remploy workers. While some pickets thought the proposals might provide a way for local authorities to co-operate in continuing to run the Welsh factories but there was concern that there is not enough detail and that the amounts made available might not be enough.
Other pickets pointed out that in order for the Welsh Government to subsidise a private employer to take them on they would need to find a job in the first place – no easy task with unemployment rising in Wales and even harder for disabled people – and that there is no guarantee that it would be of similar skills, terms and wages to their current positions.
Jean Curtis, recipient of an award for 30 years’ long service, doesn’t want to leave Remploy and there is no logic to the decision to close Remploy. Neil and other workers feel their organisation has been deliberately run down for years, softening it up for closure and privatisation of the most profitable parts. They told me that the Swansea plant could be profitable in its second year if operational changes the workers themselves have highlighted were carried out; in the alternative strategy developed by the Remploy trade unions, they estimate that the whole organisation could balance the books by 2017/2018, while providing work for 2,000 disabled people.
Jean told the South Wales Evening Post what she thought of being thanked for 30 years service before being sacked “I’m disgusted. I don’t care what Iain Duncan Smith says, there is nothing out there, especially for disabled people. I know lots of people who finished at Remploy in 2008. They would be glad to come back if the place was open because there are no jobs out there.”
About 20 workers at Bridgend, site of the first Remploy factory in UK, both GMB and Unite, were on one of the most friendly and jovial picket lines I’ve ever been on.
The factory employs 46 so this represents half the workforce, and the only people that have gone into the factory are one manager and a HR representative.
Mike Ahearn, Unite Workshop Rep, said “Most of the workers here are skilled and have specialised talents, the government want to waste that and have them stacking shelves in Tescos… The workers came up with a business plan and put in a bid to take over the factory and run it themselves – that was rejected outright in favour of a rival bidder… We have to keep fighting, we have had support on the picket from PCS members, the local MP, and a message of support from Carwyn Jones. Every bit of support we receive gives us a boost. All workers are under attack from this government at the moment so we all have to stick together.”
Close to forty people – over half the factory’s workforce, crowded outside the Porth plant on the first day of strike action. Porth is one of two factories in Wales in “Phase Two” of the government’s plan to destroy Remploy. Porth, which is an e-cycle data-erasure facility, will be sold off to a private company to pick apart.
Geoff Hollinshead, GMB rep at Porth said “They keep on saying in the press that our factory in Porth is safe. It’s not safe. We’re under threat of being TUPEd over, asset stripped and left without even a redundancy payment.
“The strike has been very well supported here – and nationally. Nobody’s crossed in Porth – they wouldn’t dare, with how strongly we feel about it. We should have taken strike action sooner.
“We haven’t even begun to fight yet, not tidy. If they think they can take my job and leave me without even a decent redundancy package – they’d better watch this space.”
Picketing union members remarked on how strike action will help to cut across government propaganda that closing Remploy would be good for disabled people.
“Hopefully the public will say ‘If disabled people will benefit from the closure, then why are we going on strike?’” said one worker, who has worked at the plant for over thirty years.
Others pointed out how easily the organisation could be made more effective and efficient. “It’s not like the work isn’t there – we’ve got too much work for the current workforce. We need a few more key operators to run the production lines,” said Robert, another veteran.
“They’re setting us up to fail,” said another. “If all the government wanted was for us to break even, why don’t they let us sell the reconditioned machines? Why aren’t we allowed to sell the scrap? There’s nickel, gold and other metals in the hard-drives we scrub.”
Cardiff Trades Council and Youth Fight for Jobs were well-received. There are jobseekers on workfare placements in the factory.
Labour’s Shadow Welsh Secretary, Owen Smith, visited the picket-line briefly with Labour Assembly Member Leighton Andrews, but the workforce was dubious of how genuine the pledge of support was. Porth Remploy began their campaign against closures when Labour were in power, and closed the nearby Treforest factory.
Leighton Andrews explained that the Welsh Government will give grants to private companies to try and encourage them to employ disabled workers. They had asked for the Remploy budget to be delegated to Wales but the ConDems refused. The Socialist Party thinks that the Remploy factories can be saved by a campaign of strike action including solidarity from the rest of the trade union movement, but the Welsh Assembly should pledge to fund the factories if the government pulls the plug and campaign publicly for more funding.
A brilliant mood on the picket line. As Mandy Webb GMB rep explained, the whole workforce came out and is doing picket duty. Staff members came out as well – only the HR manager sneaked in early before the pickets arrived.
Good mood in Aberdare. 16 pickets, all the workers not on sick leave are picketing.
Despite not being included in this round of proposed closures nearly 40 pickets were present at the Baglan Remploy factory this morning. Unite trade union banners and flags decorated the factory entrance and the mood of the strikers was one of anger that the ConDems are blatantly attacking the jobs of disabled workers.
Our support and leaflets were much appreciated by the strikers.
Pickets were out in force at Croespenmaen near Blackwood in Gwent (left). Both GMB and UNITE had a strong presence. The factory makes boxes and has been very busy. One of five Remploy factories around the country making boxes, it is the only one currently earmarked for closure despite having local customers which Remploy will lose if the factory closes.
The whole workforce is picketing in two shifts. Staunch support for the strike and from the local community.
NSSN supporters were out giving support in Dundee, Glasgow and Lanarkshire.
All 25 of the GMB members at the Dundee factory were on strike. Equally significant was the fact that 15 of them came to the picket line.
GMB flags and placards covered the factory entrances and strikers wore their defend Remploy T-shirts. “Maria Miller Factory Killer” showed the anger of the workers towards the so-called Tory disability minister responsible for the announcements.
The Dundee Remploy produces nuclear and chemical and biological protection suits for the MoD and the Home Office.
Derek Milligan the GMB shop steward explained the anger among the Remploy workers. “We’ve had a great picket today and tremendous support for our fight.
“The closures planned are a disgrace. Remploy has been a lifeline for disabled workers for decades and plays a vital role in providing employment.
“At one time we had over 200 workers here, now it’s down to 40. With millions unemployed what are the prospects of finding employment if these factories close?”
“The possibility of a private company taking over the factory will be a green light to attack the terms and working conditions of the staff.
Derek and fellow GMB activist Linda Rose recently stood as candidates for the Scottish Anti-Cuts Coalition in May during the Scottish council elections helping to highlight the battle to defend jobs at Remploy as part of the campaign against public sector cuts.
There was a good turn-out on the picket line in Springburn. Workers were keen to give a comprehensive breakdown of the problem caused by Government Minister, Maria Miller, “factory killer” and told of two possible private buy-outs which will both involve redundancies and severe cuts in staff.
Springburn took action last week as well as they were informed they were one of nine factories that the Con-Dem’s were looking to sell to a private company.
In response workers last Tuesday held a union meeting and then occupied the canteen for several hours.
Phil Brannan, GMB union convener for Remploy, said “Remploy has refused to reveal the name of the company interested in taking us over.
“This means we can’t carry out any investigations into the potential bidder or represent our members effectively because we don’t know the background.
“It also means we’ve now got yet more weeks of worry until we find out what’s going to happen. I’ve been a union rep at the site for 32 years and we’ve never taken any sort of unofficial action before.”
There was a good picket line in place at Wishaw. The factory here used to assemble cookers, freezers & fridges but lost this work as products were sold onto outlets cheaply and then resold on for big profits. 22 workers now package gift book-sets for Harper Collins, but this work is under threat and may soon be brought back in-house. 21 GMB members and 1 Unite member were involved at Wishaw.
Linda Hills has worked for nearly 30 years “Everyone’s really upset. It’s going to be hard for us all.
“We’ll need to look for other jobs but there are 2.7 million people unemployed so what chance have we got? We’ll probably have to go on to benefits and we don’t want to do that.”
The tremendous response to today’s action show’s that the workers at Remploy will defend their jobs against the Tory onslaught.