Friday, August 27, 1999 Published at 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Disabled workers 'denied choice'
The government says it wants to help disabled people into work
Plans to close 12 Remploy factories go to the heart of government policy on welfare to work, claim union leaders.
But the company, which helps get disabled people into mainstream employment as well as running factories, says it has to modernise and be more competitive.
It drew up a corporate plan at the beginning of the year in response to a government decision to freeze its subsidy to Remploy.
The government says segregated workplaces are "old fashioned". It favours disabled people being offered the chance to work in mainstream jobs.
They are also concerned that employment schemes for the disabled appear to be being cut back, at a time when the government is vaunting its welfare to work scheme.
The government denies plans for Remploy are cuts driven.
Remploy was set up in 1945 following the Second World War and as a result of the 1944 Disabled Persons (Employment) Act.
It was initially known as the Disabled Person Employment Corporation Ltd, but changed its name to Remploy in 1949.
Most of its initial employees were ex-servicemen disabled in the war.
Its first factory opened in Bridgend in April 1946, and made violins and furniture.
By 1952, there were 91 factories covering industries as diverse as knitwear, packaging and engineering, and employing nearly 6,000 severely disabled people.
In its first years, officials were split over whether Remploy should be a commercial or a social venture.
Part of the problem was that factories were built where there was an available workforce, rather than where there were raw materials or markets.
The company says the situation was improved in 1952 when it was reorganised into different trading groups, rather than along geographical lines.
Its workforce continued to grow during the 1960s and 1970s and the type of products its factories produced diversified.
It says sales rose in the 1980s, despite the recession.
The GMB says the company's current problems are rooted in the 1960s when the difference between managers' pay and disabled workers' pay began to grow.
It claims that, since 1990, the company has pursued a policy of reducing the number of disabled people working in the factories.
The GMB says many of the closures and mergers have been announced without any union consultation.
It believes some of the mergers will actually cost more, because money will have to be spent modernising some factories so that they can take on additional workers.
Phil Davies, GMB national secretary, recently claimed: "The company is really aiming for a reduction in disabled staff."
He claims a corporate plan issued by management in early 1999 is "a conspiracy to fail".
It is said to call for the closure of 17 factories and a reduction in staff.
The GMB says it was not consulted about the plan.
It fears disabled workers are being denied a choice over whether they want to work in the kind of sheltered environment offered by Remploy or in mainstream jobs.
Mr Davies says the Remploy affair "goes to the heart of government policy on welfare to work".
"It is not good having a policy that cuts benefits if there is no real policy on finding decent well-paid work for disabled people."
The GMB is suspicious about promises not to inflict compulsory redundancies.
It says numbers of disabled workers have been reduced in some factories, despite pledges of no compulsory redundancies.