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Friday, August 27, 1999 Published at 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK

Business: The Company File

Unions move to safeguard disabled jobs

The government wants more disabled workers in mainstream jobs

Unions and disability groups are calling for urgent talks with ministers in an attempt to safeguard the jobs of hundreds of disabled workers.

The BBC's Stephen Evans: "Attitudes to disabled people have changed"
The calls for a meeting follow reports that up to a 1,000 jobs may be cut by Remploy as it moves to merge some of its factories.

But Disability Rights Minister Margaret Hodge has said the reports are "completely wrong".

Instead the minister insisted that the government planned to invest more money in Remploy factories.

[ image: Margaret Hodge: No compulsory job cuts]
Margaret Hodge: No compulsory job cuts
A spokesman for the GMB union said: "We are calling for meetings with ministers to see if we can resolve this dispute.

"There must be an alternative to throwing thousands of disabled people on the dole."

Up to a dozen factories run by Remploy, which specialises in employing people with physical and learning difficulties, may be affected.

But the government says the workers will be able to move to alternative sheltered factories.

Mrs Hodge said: "We are going to provide 1,000 jobs for people with disabilities with additional money that we are investing in Remploy as well as in other supported employment providers."

She pledged there would be no compulsory redundancies, although she confirmed that 12 of Remploy's 88 factories would be merged over the next three years.

The minister said the move was not a "cuts-driven exercise".

Mainstream employment

Mrs Hodge added: "We are not freezing the [government] subsidy - we are giving Remploy an additional £10m over the period to ensure that they can change the way that they can provide job opportunities for disabled people."

The government believes it is "old-fashioned and inappropriate" to have disabled people working in segregated places, she said.

According to the Department for Education and Employment the decision was "part of a continued investment programme that the government has got in modernising the facilities and capability of Remploy to compete".

Remploy is committed to employing almost 11,000 people with disabilities by 2002 compared with around 10,000 at present.

Union outrage

A spokesman for the GMB union Des Farrell said: "We had hoped Mrs Hodge's review of the Supported Employment programme offered the Remploy workers a lifeline, but today's announcement shows she intends to go even further than Michael Portillo [the former Conservative employment secretary] and push ahead with the closure programme.

"It is staggering that 50 years after a Labour government set up the `Factories Fit for Heroes', a Labour government is seeking to close them down," he said.

Former Conservative minister Michael Portillo was forced to abandon plans to axe help for Remploy workers.

In 1994 he tried to end a scheme guaranteeing the factories priority for government contracts.

The company works in several niche markets including ladies' underwear, school furniture and life jackets.

Learning disability charity Mencap is also concerned about the closure plans and is seeking urgent clarification of their implications.

Employment campaigns officer Tom Berry said: "Where appropriate disabled people should be supported to work in mainstream employment, but it may be better for some to work in a sheltered environment.

"They may feel more confident there. It depends what suits each individual."

He added there was a suspicion among disabled groups that state funding for disabled employment schemes was being cut, despite publicity over welfare to work schemes.

Recent research shows that only 4% of people with learning disabilities is in work.

Mencap says many more could work if they were properly supported.

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