What Remploy Did For Me
When I was a beneficiary of its expertise, Remploy was still owned by the Department of Work and Pensions. Following extensive factory closures, it is now in private hands, owned by Maximus and an employee trust. Since the reorganisation, what has happened to its disabled employees? They have not just gone away, and there will be hopeful for suitable openings, as anxious as the next person that their last job will not become a distant memory.
I was in and out of work as a solicitor over a period of twelve years. At one time – how embarrassing to admit this – so poor was my bargaining position that I desperately needed help to regularise my pay and paperwork. My well-intentioned boss was a single practitioner too busy to deal with it. Remploy agreed to accept me onto their books and was able to set my pay to rights, provide me with pay slips, sort out my national insurance contributions and offer a pension, as well as day-to-day advice and support. During periodic visits, my Remploy supervisor saw me working and asked why I didn’t find myself a proper job: funding limits meant that I was at the top of my pay bracket and likely to stay there. He obviously felt I deserved better.
Taking his words to heart, I did find another job quite easily. Because my new pay increased substantially, Remploy could not continue to support me and I bid them a fond farewell as I prepared to take my chances on the open market. But pay was only one part of their remit. They provided understanding, a position of bargaining strength and expertise, all of which I lost when we parted company.
Aware of my limitations, I took another post advertised as part-time, thirty hours a week. But as always, the devil is in the detail. To do the job, I was expected to accept unrealistic deadlines set by other people, and was forced to work after hours. The pay was great, but nothing was added for overtime, which stretched uncomfortably until I was easily putting in forty hours a week. For an able-bodied colleague that might be a nuisance. For someone with a disability, the effect is more insidious. After six months, I had to rest, but when I asked for a day off each week – planning to fit thirty hours into four days – twice my request was refused without any discussion. Exhausted and faced with targets I struggled to meet, I had to leave. These days I work from home, aware that when I put in a forty hour week, at least I can do so from the comfort of my armchair and take frequent breaks. How many employers can afford to be so relaxed?
For those of us who might wish to work independently in the job market, the truth about Remploy is that their continuing support has been vital for longer-term success, though this is not always obvious at the outset. Remploy helped me to stay in work because they understood my practical dilemma, which no other employer would take account of in the normal course of business: I needed to be able to pace myself. Remploy were able to find a formula that worked. In so doing, they enabled me to take a longer-term view. Once their support was removed, I soon found myself unable to manage in an environment unapologetically geared to an able-bodied workforce.
According to the Sayce review which recommended the closure of Remploy factories, funds available to make finding a job easier are better targeted at disabled employees directly. In the same way that disabled consumers have the right to visit shops unimpeded, employment seems increasingly to be treated as a matter of access. The disability alliance website notes that “Access to Work helps disabled people and employers with adjustments to premises, transport costs and other in-work support” all of which certainly help. But what happens once an employee with impairments has a foot in the door?
Overwhelmingly, employers consider one aspect of work: their financial costs and gains. While disability discrimination legislation has made great strides forward, there remain many aspects in which the market driven-economy can skip neatly around its obligations to disabled employees. In hidden and insidious ways, a disabled employee often remains at a disadvantage, no matter how many hours are devoted to employee relations or however many policies exist to allow flexible working. Unfavourable comparisons around productivity, punctuality, sociability, public image and teamwork remain.
A friend of mine who is disabled and writes plays about disability wrote to me, “(we) should be judged according to others in your circumstances”. But how many disabled people can keep their place securely in mainstream employment? It is a difficult conundrum. In the Remploy factories, impairment has always been the norm, which was at least useful when it came to making meaningful comparisons.
So long as each former employee of a Remploy factory has found work and access to the same levels of continuing support, the changes in workplace structure and ethos may not impact too badly. But somehow, I doubt that the necessary levels of support will remain available over the long term.
Remploy has efficiently and quietly gone about its business over many years. If it had been making a lot of noise and grabbing the headlines, its contribution to the lives of disabled adults might not have been so easily refashioned to suit an ideology which assumes, on scant evidence, that for a disabled person the difficulties of finding and keeping a job are easily sorted with a bit of remodelling. The architects of the changes will not be waiting around to pick up the pieces if their optimism turns out to be misplaced. Yet, as news reports of the time indicate, barely one third of the employees made redundant during the privatisation processes have found re-employment. Old-style supported employment has its place in the scheme of things, after all.
I hear that Labour are planning to re-nationalise. Will they re-nationalise Remploy?