When the Leeds and Pontefract Remploy factories closed down it was a huge blow to dozens of disabled people from across West Yorkshire who had worked there.
In 2012, the Government said Remploy factories – which gave jobs to disabled people – were running at a loss, and that disabled people should be working in mainstream employment.
At the time, workers spoke of their fears of being thrown on the scrapheap and spending the rest of their lives on benefits.
It would have been easy for its employees to lose faith in a tough jobs’ market.
But instead of giving up, 12 former workers at Remploy’s Leeds and Pontefract sites each invested £5,000 of their redundancy to create a worker co-operative, Enabled Works.
Two years on and the not-for-profit business based in Morley has doubled its workforce, floor space and contracts, focusing on pick and pack distribution, electrical assembly and warehousing.
It employs people from North Kirklees, Morley and beyond.
Dewsbury-born company secretary Tony Gledhill had worked at the Remploy factory at the bottom of Churwell Hill for 25 years.
“We were absolutely devastated when it was forced to close. The Government were saying for a while that they were going to do it but we never believed them.”
Some people argue that segregated workplaces for disabled people are an outdated concept, saying they should be fully integrated into the mainstream workforce.
Tony said: “In a utopia that’s the way it would work, yes, but in reality if a company is struggling and there is a disabled person who can’t do the lifting, they will be first one to get chopped.”
Walking in to the factory, it certainly doesn’t seem like a special case. Workers are busily packing Haribo sweets and laughter and workplace chatter fill the air.
As managing director Tina Brown MBE explained, being part of Enabled Works is more than just a job.
“For a lot of people it’s not about the money,” she said. “It’s their social life too. Some of them haven’t got families.”
Tina, who has asthma and back problems, was the former site manager of Remploy Leeds. It’s here that she and Tony became a couple.
“It’s about keeping people together so they’ve got somebody to turn to,” she added. “Here they have the interaction and support that a lot of mainstream companies just can’t give them.”
Everyone at the business from Tina and Tony down to those on the production line are on the same hourly rate of £6.50 and everyone has a stake in the company. All profits are ploughed back into expanding the business and giving more opportunities to disabled people.
“As long as we are breaking even, we’re not going to go on holiday to America,” said Tony.
“Promoting independent living for people, that’s what makes us happy,” added Tina.
Enabled Works has received help in the form of various grants, but has been winning contracts entirely on its own merit. They currently have a £100,000 contract with Haribo and are in talks with Coca-Cola.
And now, Enabled Works has been awarded the two ticks by the Job Centre, proving that the company is positive about disabled people.
Job Centre’s West Yorkshire deputy district manager Pete Moss said: “This is recognition of what they have achieved, how positive they are about giving disabled people opportunities to start and carry on work. It’s a great example of a sustainable employer.”
Tony said: “This award is great for us.
“The Government said disabled people didn’t want to work together, but here we are – it’s disabled people helping the disabled to do what they want to do.”
It’s further recognition for the business, which also won the social impact award at Morley Business Awards last month.
Tina, Tony and business development director John Wormald now want to open more branches on a franchise model.
Enabled Works already provides training to disabled people, providing them with other work placements using business contacts, and is in the process of setting up a job search and CV clinic.
“People have set up their own businesses after leaving us,” said Tina. “It’s great to see them leave with confidence, some of them wouldn’t say boo to a goose when they first came.
“When they show people round, friends or family, you can see how proud they are. They never dreamed they would be able to say ‘this is my business’.
“They feel at home, that’s what we really strive for. They wake up in the morning and say they want to go to work.”