No place for segregated employment in the modern world?
Today workers from Remploy – which has provided employment for thousands of disabled people since the end of the second world war – were out on strike.
The government has decided to close 27 of the company’s 54 factories. The remaining face an uncertain future.
Most of the factories are running at a loss and the government argues the £320m budget for disability employment would be better spent elsewhere.
It has promised Remploy workers an £8m package of one-to-one to support to help them find “real” jobs in the real world.
The problem for the workers I spoke to at the Barking site today, is that they’ve tried working in that world, and found it a terrifying experience.
Paul Effeny has learning difficulties. In previous jobs he endured constant verbal abuse and bullying. At an aerosol factory, bottles and spray cans were thrown at him and others while they worked. And then eventually, as he sat in the canteen one day, he realised two girls had set fire to the legs of his boiler suit.
“I could smell something burning,” he told me. “When I saw the flames I said to them, ‘What the hell do you thing you’re doing?’ But they just said, ‘it’s only a joke.'”
He says working at Remploy changed his life. “I feel a lot safer here. I feel comfortable talking to people here. It’s like my own comfort zone.”
Everyone’s story was much the same.
Dawn Russell is deaf. She met and married her husband, who has learning difficulties, while working for the company and is terrified of the prospect of them both losing their jobs. She insists she won’t get work anywhere else – employers “don’t have the patience” for people like her.
They’re furious with claims that Remploy isn’t “proper” work; that Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, suggested they “just sat around making coffee all day.”
Forty five year old Mark Holloway, has cerebral palsy and has worked at Barking for 26 years. “Not proper work? We produce circuit boards, do computer cleansing, how’s that not proper work? This isn’t a basket weaving centre.”
Ironically, he is certain he will fall foul of Mr Duncan Smith again, once the factory is closed, by living out the rest of his life on benefits. “When it [the factory] goes, that will be the end of my working life. I won’t be employed again.”
A huge part of the disability lobby supports the closure of the Remploy factories.
They agree that the principle of integrated employment is the way forward. But there’s little doubting the potentially devastating effect these closures will have on the personal lives of around 1,200 disabled people now facing the prospect of life out of work.