Disabled Remploy workers who are part of a supported employment programme could be at risk of losing their jobs because the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is set to refuse to renew a three-year funding agreement.
The funding was awarded to Remploy in 2015 for its Interwork scheme, which was set up in 1998 and currently supports about 100 disabled people in mainstream employment.
Without that funding, many of those jobs could be at risk.
It comes only four years after the hugely controversial closure of the remaining Remploy sheltered factories by the coalition, after it stopped subsidising what was then a government-owned business.
Interwork employees are all disabled people whose employment terms and conditions reflect those of their host employer but who have a Remploy contract of employment.
The aim is for them to eventually become employees of the host company, with access to Remploy employment support.
But Disability News Service has been contacted by one Interwork employee, Sam* – who has asked to remain anonymous – who has been told by a Remploy manager that the DWP funding agreement was “coming to an end”.
He has been told that DWP “has asked Remploy to explore the options relating to Interwork employees on a without prejudice basis with a view to securing sustainable employment for as many employees as possible, ideally with the host employer”.
The Remploy manager adds: “It is our intention to try and secure employment for all those who want it but if this is not possible and you were placed at risk of redundancy at some point in the future then we would consult with you about this and you would of course be entitled to a company redundancy payment.”
Despite this email, Remploy insisted this week that no Interwork employees were at risk of redundancy. Remploy has declined to explain this discrepancy.
Sam said he had only been told that Remploy would “try their best” to find a job for him once the agreement with DWP ended in the next few months.
He said he believed the government was playing “a very dirty game” and was trying to keep the situation a secret “just so they can avoid another scandal like what happened when they closed the factories”.
Remploy was bought from the government by the discredited US outsourcing company Maximus in 2015, although 20 per cent is owned by its employees.
A Remploy spokesman said: “There are around 100 Interwork employees, none of whom are at risk of redundancy, and Remploy continues to work to transfer their employment to host employers with the agreement of both the employer and the Interwork employee.”
He added: “The letter only states the individual’s rights if there were a future consultation process.”
He said that 15 of the 100 had so far transferred their employment to the host employer.
He declined to say how significant the government funding had been and whether Remploy had been hoping it would be renewed.
And he said that Remploy’s specialist job programmes continued to support thousands of disabled people each year to find and remain in work, and operated separately from the Interwork programme.
The union Unite would not say whether it was concerned about the possibility of future redundancies among Interwork employees.
But in a statement, Unite regional officer Kevin Hepworth, who looks after the union’s Remploy members, said: “We are discussing the future of Remploy Interwork employees with the company.
“There is a degree of uncertainty as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has not made its position clear over renewing the three-year funding agreement to continue to provide support to Remploy’s Interwork employees.
“Unite is continuing to press the DWP for clarity on this issue.”
He added: “Should any individual Unite member have an issue about their current circumstances and possible future developments, they should get in touch with the union which will take up their case with vigour.
“Once the overall picture becomes clearer, Unite will be able to comment more fully.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “Remploy has confirmed that none of the Interwork employees are at risk of redundancy.
“DWP continues to support Remploy as they look to transfer Interwork employees to host employers, with the agreement of both the host employer and the Interwork employee.
“DWP and Remploy drew up a commercial agreement as part of Remploy’s transition from government. Details of this agreement are commercially sensitive.”
The potential loss of the DWP funding risks reigniting the controversy over the closure of the remaining Remploy sheltered factories by the coalition government.
The final three Remploy factories were sold in December 2013, at the end of a turbulent five years which began with the Labour government closing 29 of the remaining 83 factories in 2008.
The coalition government then announced in March 2012 that it was withdrawing all subsidies from Remploy – which at the time was government-owned – and that the remaining 54 factory-based businesses would be sold or closed.
In all, 48 of the final 54 factories were closed, and just six were sold, while nearly 2,000 workers were made redundant. Seven new businesses were started in former Remploy factories.
The coalition said at the time that it was closing the factories because it wanted to support disabled people into mainstream jobs, and that the closures were necessary because a large chunk of the budget for employment support for disabled people was “going into failing factories”.
But unions and many anti-cuts activists were furious – as many campaigners had been at the Labour closures – and said that disabled workers from the factories were being “thrown on the scrap heap”, while they argued that the sheltered employment offered by Remploy was far better than a life of unemployment.
Remploy continues to run an employment services division, finding jobs for disabled and disadvantaged people in mainstream employment, and is closely involved in government employment programmes, including the new Work and Health Programme.
*Not his real name