Does Supported Employment Have a Future?

Posted: 10 December 2012, in Blog

I’ve never had much time for trade unions when it comes to supporting workers in the social economy. My view is based on the analysis (and experience) that the unions have a public sector mind-set and that they have traditionally seen social enterprise and charity employees as a different class of worker – something to be suspicious of, a rival to their real members jobs.

If you also support worker co-ops as credible social enterprises, then of course, the very notion of requiring a trade union at all adds a further dimension to the relationship between public sector defenders and social entrepreneurs, many of whom exist to correct state failure. The fact that social entrepreneurs are actually entrepreneurs also adds an additional piquancy to this relationship.

With regard to Remploy however, I have to say that the unions, and others, are at least trying to save the jobs of disabled people. Their lack of success however is a real insight along with the ATOS disability assessment scandal into how DWP and the Treasury view the cuts and who is expendable.

I do wonder however if Remploy is actually a social enterprise or does its umbilical relationship with the State prevent it acting truly independently and entrepreneurially. I’m not informed enough about levels of subsidy, productivity and management and board performance within Remploy to comment about specifics, but, Iain Duncan Smith has made it clear that Remploy employees don’t fit his vision of what supported employment should be.

In plain English, don’t think you will work in a supported environment for life. The task of supported employment initiatives is to get folk with disabilities “market ready” to compete for work in the wider labour market. This is of course predicated on a Tory (and Lib Dem?) philosophy about rights and responsibilities but the current economic context renders these debates meaningless when there aren’t any jobs and discrimination against disabled folk still permeates the labour market. Not much of a Paralympic legacy there really.

I’m intrigued to see where this demise of Remploy leads because in my experience there are always winners and losers when Govt spends or redistributes cash.  Who will get supported employment cash from now on and will future initiatives (phoenix firms rising from Remploy?) be run by G4S et al and the usual private sector supporters of the Tories? If this happens, will disability leaders acceptable to the Govt end up on the boards of these private sector businesses as (token) advisers?

There are disability and employment “experts” critical of Remploy – hit the internet for the comments and insults if you must, but the major issues seem to be about purpose, effectiveness and the Govt getting more bang (outcomes not outputs) for their buck.  Is this criticism valid and if so what does this mean for supported employment in the future? Will it now only be acceptable to subsidise the deserving disabled – troops coming back from war for example? Is there now a disability hierarchy?

As usual, the Remploy workers are the people feeling the pain; the impact of redundancy, increased poverty and the acute loss of self-respect and supportive networks.  No one seems to be listening to what they want to do with their lives. They have been wrenched from a situation which they understood and was stable. Are they “guilty” of not producing enough of what the market wants or has Remploy lacked capital investment and a social entrepreneur leader/management team to develop it as a real business. Has it become (or always been) a project and therefore, an inevitable casualty of Govt disengagement?

Maybe supported employment initiatives should all be converted to worker co-ops – that might be a starting position for real social entrepreneurship and working within markets with or without public subsidy on wages. I wonder if the unions would support that.


NOTE: This opinion piece blog does not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of Social Enterprise Scotland.