Today Remploy workers will go on strike across the country to defend their jobs, and they deserve our full-hearted support. As with so many of the Government’s cuts, it is the most vulnerable who are singled out time and time again.
The Coalition’s reasoning behind the closure of 36 sites is partly down to pure cost cutting, but also reflects a reasonable aim of ensuring that disabled people are not segregated into different workplaces. Yet again though, the Coalition is out of touch with reality. Of course it would be preferable that all employers made the adjustments and gave the support necessary for disabled employees to work effectively. It just isn’t happening in practice.
The Equality Act requires employers only to make ‘reasonable’ adjustments to enable disabled people to work. Whether they do so or not will depend on cost, the size of an organisation and practicality. Many small companies do not have the resources to make reasonable adjustments, which goes some way to explaining why the employment rate for disabled people, even before the UK economy went into recession in 2008, was less than 50% of disabled people of working age – 25% less than the employment rate for non-disabled people.
What makes Remploy so vital is that the market has clearly failed to give disabled people the opportunities they deserve. While employer attitudes towards disabled people have become more positive over the last decade, not least due to pioneering legislation from the Labour Government, disability hate crimes reached a record high this year. Closing Remploy sites, added to the failed Work Capability Assessments and the general anti-welfare rhetoric from this Government, cannot help but to create the conditions where desperately insecure people lash out at the disabled.
People who have disabilities and mental health conditions don’t fit neatly into a Whitehall shaped box. A local resident I have known for a while in my ward has had a serious mental health problem. Some days when I popped round to see him, he wasn’t even up to opening the door to me. After a referral to a fantastic local garden centre which specialises in training and supporting people with mental health issues, my friend started to regain his confidence, and just yesterday I met him looking super and back on his feet. It’s taken about five years, but even now he’s not ready for a workplace that wasn’t as supportive as his current job. His condition is certainly not improved by the anxiety created by the current witch-hunt for ‘shirkers’.
It is right that we listen to disability charities who continue to urge employers to make the necessary changes to give disabled people a job, but that doesn’t mean pulling the rug from the feet of people who are already in a job they enjoy and have created a community of colleagues who support them, as with Remploy. The pittance that the Government saves by closing Remploy will simply come back to the Treasury when those same disabled workers sign on for benefits because they no longer have a job. What the Government is doing lacks common sense.
So as the Government trots out the inevitable platitudes today about Access to Work costing less, and Remploy workers not being productive enough, think about Tony Collins who just recently carried the Olympic Torch in Essex. He’s contributed enough to his community to be given the honour of representing this country, but not enough for the government to allow him to keep his job. It’s a disgrace, and Labour must hold the Tories to account for it.
Jessica Asato is a Labour Councillor for St. George’s Ward in Islington