Remploy's history as specialist disabled employer remembered as final factories close

The Duke of Edinburgh watches Gwyn Harding work at the Remploy factory in 1958. Credit: Barratts/S&G Barratts/EMPICS Archive

Today the final three Remploy factories still operating will close, ending 60 years of specialist employment spaces for disabled people. 90% of Remploy employees, or 150 people, the majority of whom are living with a disability, will lose their jobs.

Read: Remploy to close Blackburn, Neath and Sheffield units

Remploy Employment Services will continue in business, working to help disabled and disadvantaged people into mainstream employment.

Remploy was was formed in April 7, 1945, as a social and industrial innovation to provide employment and training for people injured during the Second World War, and for disabled miners.

The first factory opened in Bridgend in November 1946, making violins.

The Remploy Coventry factory in 1957. Credit: Remploy

There was a rapid expansion of factories in throughout the 1940s and by 1950 there were 84 factories.

At its height in the late 80s Remploy employed more than 10,000 people, the vast majority of whom were disabled, across 94 sites.

The Duke of Edinburgh watches Remploy employee John Davies at the the factory in 1958

Probably best known for producing furniture, the company at its height produced an array of products, including including knitwear, protective clothing, automotive parts, orthodontic and medical products, electronic components including vibrators, household goods, shoes for racehorses, products for erectile dysfunction as well as for growing flowers and tomatoes.

The royal family has enjoyed a special connection with Remploy over the years, with the Queen frequently purchasing sweatshirts designed and made by the workers.

Queen Elizabeth opening the new factory in west London for Remploy Credit: PA Archive

The seats for the audience of at the investiture of the Prince of Wales were made by Remploy, and to celebrate the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Diana in 1981, special matching cream sweaters were designed.

The matching sweaters designed by Remploy for the Prince and Princess of Wales ahead of their wedding in 1981. Credit: Remploy/ David Felton

The company was considered a success without making a profit, as it existed as a social enterprise providing a specialist service.

However this slowly changed as it began to lose money, as increasing competition from low-wage economies across South east Asia and eastern Europe left it, like many UK factories, unable to compete.

Remploy's Newcastle-upon-Tyne factory, seen in the 1950s. Credit: Remploy

Another factor which led to today's closure was the change in social attitudes questioning whether disabled people should be employed in segregated workspaces. Recognising this, the business model changed to support disabled people into mainstream employment.

In 2007 there were 83 factories in the network, the Labour government decided that the loss making factories had to close, and Remploy should concentrate on placing people in mainstream jobs.

Sam Green, Managing Director Croydon factory making specialist footwear 1955 Credit: Remploy

29 factories were closed in March 2008 and a five year moderisation plan was launched with £555 million funding guaranteed for the period.

Losses in factories continued whilst the employment service end of the business strengthened.

According to Remploy in 2008, the Remploy Employment Services hit their target of supporting 20,000 disabled and disadvantaged people into employment annually, two years ahead of schedule.

Remploy Employment Services will continue in business. Credit: Lewis Stickley/ PA Wire

In Decemeber 2010, the new Coalition government commissioned Liz Sayce, head of Disability Rights UK to examine whether the £320 disability employment budget, - which Remploy received one third of at the time - could be better spent.

Her report said the money spent on keeping the Remploy factories open could be better spent on supporting disabled people into mainstream jobs.

Read: Government following 'expert advice with Remploy factory closures'

Remploy Employment Services work with 2,500 of the country's biggest employers to get disabled people into work. Credit: Press Association

In March 2012 the government announced it was withdrawing all subsidies and that the factory-based businesses would be sold or closed.

The government pledged a support package of £8 million for disabled employees made redundant over an 18 month period.

Today, of the information available on the 48 factories that have already closed, (so not including the final three closing today) the overwhelming majority of disabled people have not found new jobs.

  • 2580 Remploy employees have been made redundant_ _

  • 1,940 of these employees are disabled

  • 390 disabled employees have transferred to new employers.

Remploy Employment Services have been guaranteed government funding until 2015, and the decision as to who will own it after this point is still being decided.

More: Remploy strikers hits out at Government's factory closures