Worker co-operatives offer a lifeline to Remploy staff

Workers at former Remploy factories are setting up co-ops to escape unemployment after the Government’s decision to sell off or close their workplaces.

Workers at former Remploy factories are setting up co-ops to escape unemployment after the Government’s decision to sell off or close their workplaces.

Three co-operatives have opened in York and Leeds and Aberdeen in response to the closures at Remploy, which provided work for disabled people for more than 60 years until the scheme ended last year.

In York, the GMB trade union and the Remploy Trade Union Consortium started a campaign to re-open the Remploy factory after it closed in 2008.

Former employee John Wilson carried out a feasibility study to determine whether the co-operative was viable. In June 2008, the GMB Congress in June raised over £72,000 from donations to set up the co-op.

The co-op was backed by Social Enterprise Yorkshire Humber and Sustainable Solutions who helped them obtain grants and put together the business plan.

It also received support from Co-operative and Mutual Solutions (CMS), a lead partner in the C-Change programme — the precursor to the Enterprise Hub — funded by the Co-operative Group, which gives co-ops access to specialist consultancy.

Their co-op — York Disabled Workers Co-operative — now employs four workers who produce pet accommodation and garden products such as nest boxes and bird tables.

“It’s a new concept. It’s about giving people with learning difficulties or disabilities a chance to run their own co-operative,” said Mr Wilson.

Remploy workers from Leeds and Pontefract were in a similar situation in 2012, when their sites closed, with the loss of 60 and 34 jobs respectively.

Tony Gladhill, former supervisor – who had also been involved in setting up YDWC – and Tina Brown, former manager at the Leeds site, decided to set up a co-op and invited John Wormald, from Pontefract, onto the board.

The Pontefract site closed down three months before Leeds. The workers set up their co-op, Enabled Works, in October last year using their redundancy payments.

“Remploy failed in the way it was run and it operated; if we set up as a co-operative any money is actually reinvested in the community for the benefit of those involved,” said Mr Wormald, adding that the new co-op lacks Remploy’s old layers of management. Now, “everybody gets the same wages, we are all each other’s manager,” he explained.

Enabled Works provides jobs for 12 disabled people, all former employees of Remploy. It also offers work experience to seven volunteers, and has become a training and development environment for disadvantaged and disabled people from the region.

Wiith more than 3,300 people losing their jobs in Remploy closures, the co-op model offers a crucial alternative. “Over 80 per cent of people made redundant haven’t found jobs”, said Dave Hollings, from CMS, who provided advice and support to Enabled Works.

The co-op model came to the rescue in Aberdeen, saving eight jobs after the Remploy factory closed in October 2012. Next year, the new co-op hopes to take on more staff, develop product lines and enter new markets.

“We had to act very quickly,” said sales director Lorna Bucham. “We registered the Community Interest Company, found premises, bought equipment and started the business in just 30 days. Remploy closed on a Friday and we started on the following Monday. “Although we received a huge amount of support from the Enterprise Hub and local businesses, it was the employees who had to invest, both mentally and financially, in the success of the new company.”

No jobs for Midlands workers as Government rejects bid

Campaigners want bidding processes to be more transparent after a move by Remploy staff to set up a worker co-op in the Midlands was rejected.

Workers bid for the business after three sites in Coventry, Birmingham and Derby were closed, but lost out to another bidder. The sites employ 220 workers, 95 per cent of them with a disability.

Dominic Hinks, from the GMB trade union, said the bid put forward a sustainable business plan and additional profits would have been re-invested into the community. The factory would have also opened up training opportunities for the local community.

The Lib Dem MP for Birmingham Yardley, John Hemming, worked on the bid and claims the process was weighted against the Remploy staff, as they were not given access to important financial information. He joined the GMB in calling for more transparency in the bidding process.

The union said the government failed to deliver on its promise to support worker co-operatives. Official publicity around the sale of Remploy had talked about worker co-operatives, getting workers more involved and protecting jobs.

“It’s a pity that the Government didn’t stick by what they had said,” added Mr Hemming.

The Midlands workers aren’t alone. Fve years ago, Remploy had 83 factories across the UK; 29 sites were closed down in 2008 and a further 34 were closed in 2012.

The closure of three more Remploy factories in Blackburn, Sheffield and Baglan will leave another 160 disabled people without a job.

In this article

Join the Conversation