‘If it closes there isn’t anywhere else to go’

CONCERN Nick Durrant, Remploy shop steward. Picture: Mick Young
CONCERN Nick Durrant, Remploy shop steward. Picture: Mick Young
Craig Jenkins and his son Graham at HMS Sultan  Picture: PO Phot Nicola Harper

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For Nick Durrant, disability is not a dirty word.

Because though he is someone who suffers from severe epilepsy, he has been working for the same company for 34 years, in a job he loves and is very passionate about.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE Remploy factory site in Fratton. Picture: Malcolm Wells (094309-9560)

UNCERTAIN FUTURE Remploy factory site in Fratton. Picture: Malcolm Wells (094309-9560)

At Remploy that’s the norm.

There are about 15 people working at the factory in Rodney Road, Fratton, and all have been there for at least a decade.

Of those 15 employees, 13 live with some sort of disability, but all are employed full time at the factory, which makes cardboard packaging for clients as varied as Manchester United and the Royal British Legion.

They all feel so strongly about their jobs and their employer that they took part in a strike last Thursday to try and safeguard their factory from closure, and are again staging a strike today.

And Nick, who is shop steward at the site, is adamant the factory needs to remain open to give a lifeline to those who work there, as well as giving a service to the firm’s clients.

He said: ‘Because you are disabled doesn’t mean you can’t do something useful.

‘If you don’t give people a chance you’ll never know what they can do.’

When the plant opened in 1948, the area was full of factories, but now the Fratton site – one of a network of similar Remploy factories across the country – is among a handful of remaining manufacturers.

When Nick joined the factory in September 1978, it employed 90 people, both disabled and not, and the factory thrived.

‘Remploy was set up after World War Two to give those coming back injured some dignity and a place to work.

‘There are 20,000 disabled people in the UK but we can’t get people to work at Remploy, because apparently we’re a “ghetto”, according to Margaret Hodge in 2007, who was then the minister for disabled people.

‘Now we’ve got people coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq injured who need work, and that’s what Remploy was set up to do.

‘We need it.’

Nick says he and his staff have been accused, alongside the UK’s Remploy workforce, of ‘sitting around and drinking coffee’, rather than doing work.

Nick disagrees, saying the workforce in Portsmouth, specifically, is busy from the time the shift starts at 6.45am to when the team knock off at 4pm.

He says that despite the recession decreasing the factory’s orders by a third, there is still a demand for its services – and for it to remain a lifeline for those who work there.

‘If this place closes, what are we going to do for work?

‘There are people working here who won’t be able to work anywhere else at all.

‘I’m six years off retirement, and if this place closes I’m not going to be able to find anything else. I’m not sure if there’s anything else I can do.

‘What will the others do?’

Remploy is proposing to close 36 of its 54 factories with potential compulsory redundancies for more than 1,700 disabled workers.

It is a government-owned and subsidised company set up to provide a sheltered environment for people with disabilities.

It has grown to become the country’s largest specialist employer of disabled people.

The Portsmouth factory has so far avoided being listed as one of the factories that will close, but its future is far from assured.

It has to prove it can be profitable to either attract private investment, or to be able to secure funding for a management buyout.

As reported in The News earlier this year, Portsmouth City Council has been meeting with the factory’s management to try and help in any way it can.

But while the Portsmouth Remploy factory has been spared the axe, city council boss Mike Hancock said its future is far from assured.

The council says it will have only until autumn 2013 to prove it can operate at a profit.

If it can’t, then closure would be inevitable.

For many working at Remploy, their only option in that instance would be to try and find other jobs, or to give up their treasured independence to move in with family, relying on state benefits to live.

Caroline Norman, of Apsley Road, is one of those who will lose out if Remploy closes its factory doors.

Her carer is her 74-year-old mum, but her job is a way of letting Caroline have her independence and a life away from home.

She’s been working for Remploy for 23 years, and said: ‘All my friends are here, and I don’t know what I’ll do if the factory closes.’

Rosemary Mitchell, 35, of Widley, agrees.

Standing on the picket line last week she said: ‘I think keeping the factories open is important because I don’t think a lot of disabled people will be able to cope with working elsewhere.

‘They need an enclosed environment.’

Tracey Wright, 41, of Baffins, has been with the firm for 15 years.

She says she is lucky because if she lost her job she might be able to get her brother to train her up to help out in his repair garage.

But she added: ‘I’ve got bills to pay and I don’t really know how I’m going to do it.’

Another picketer, Gary Bolderson, 48, of Landport, said he does not want to go on benefits and wants to keep working.

And to do that he’ll need Remploy.

He said: ‘I want to work, so I suppose in the worst case scenario I might try to retrain.

‘But I don’t have much experience in doing anything else, and I don’t know if I could do it, if I could keep with it. I live on my own at the moment. I have family and friends who I could turn to but I like being independent.’

There’s also another reason why Remploy closing in Portsmouth would be a loss to the city.

With much encouragement coming from the government to encourage businesses to take on apprentices, Remploy has been giving young people a hand onto the job ladder for years.

Nick Durrant is in charge of working with JobCentre Plus to get youngsters on an eight-week placement.

‘Not all of them are disabled, some of them are young lads who have been unemployed for a while,’ says Nick. ‘We take them on, train them on the machines, and see how they get on.’

In the past 18 months Remploy has arranged 50 placements, with many finding work as a direct result.

Nick adds: ‘We’d like to take on more disabled people.

‘For 20 years we haven’t taken people on. If we are to survive as a factory we need some fresh blood.’