I’m very pleased that management and the union representing disabled workers at the Pluss factory on Marsh Barton are working constructively together on a solution that could save most if not all of the jobs.
Two weeks ago, Pluss management announced they were planning to close the factory and make the workforce redundant. This plant has existed in Exeter for decades and some of its staff have worked there since the 1970s. They do an incredible job making a whole variety of products ranging from cabling for British Telecom to upholstery and cushions for NHS wheelchairs and even specialised interior seats and upholstery for rare vintage motor vehicles including the famous VW campervans. The staff at Pluss, who are mainly disabled or learning disabled, generate an income of £700,000 a year. They and their union, Community Union, believe there is a perfectly viable future for the factory and that the alternative would be its workforce losing their jobs, being dependent on social security and costing the system much more in the long run.
After meeting management yesterday, national and regional representatives of Community say they are hopeful of reaching an agreement with the management that would enable the work done at the factory to continue. It is critical that they are given time to thrash out a solution because if they are forced to close on the original May timetable they risk losing the important contracts they have with the NHS, BT and others.
I hope very much that the management and staff representatives will continue to work constructively together to save this vital and historic Exeter factory.
When I visited Pluss yesterday I was handed this moving letter by one of the employees which sums up how worried they are about their future:
I would just like to start by sincerely thanking you for visiting the site today, and showing your support for the factory and its employees. I began working for the company when it was originally known as the Exeter Industrial Services Group, so I have seen many of the changes that have taken place throughout its development. I am dedicated to the company because of its social purpose, and its integrity with helping people furthest from the labour market back into employment. The fact that the 'Pluss' grew and expanded from the services and capabilities of the work staff makes it even more poignant, what a tragedy it is to close this social enterprise.
When I started my new position in the factory a couple of years ago, I was instantly welcomed and it was obvious that the team were great friends. And it is true that happy workers make for a productive workforce. The work force in the factory are the best I could wish for as they are incredibly hard working, highly skilled, professional and take great pride in their work. I can not express enough how devastating it is for them, as they have all worked together for so many years and are truly more like family then friends. The work force will face far more challenges to find employment because of their disabilities, especially in today’s current economic climate.
In terms of how supported factories are perceived as institutionalising people, I personally strongly resent this argument in relation to our factory. This is a modern factory with a great atmosphere, and the staff are highly trained professional people that love their chosen jobs. The manager has been taking great steps forward since his appointment, and I truly believe the business has the potential to flourish under the right conditions.
I know the factory can be a success, we were winning large NHS framework agreements and we were in the final stages of completing an e-commerce website, along with great improvements in our marketing and PR strategy. As a result of the renewed effort by all the team, this has meant sales have been significantly improving. The company has fantastic potential, as we have been operating in the market place for over 25 years, therefore our brand is known and trusted by all major players in this sector. Also the re-upholstery department that specialises in mainly campervans, cars and boats is always very busy and we supply some great local businesses.
I strongly believe that we as a country should be supporting British manufacturing, also it is a growing business sector, which is even more reason to help support the work force. With the increase in global shipping costs, more and more business is returning to the UK from other countries, such as China. It also has to be said that our products are ethically produced, which means our customers can have complete peace of mind with regards to human rights and health & safety regulations etc.
It is generally considered that short-term decisions are more expensive. In this current economic climate we need to make smart decisions. The people being made redundant will potentially place a long term strain on our social security system, and other related Government agencies. Therefore potentially no money will be saved in the long run, just more expense to the tax payer. I believe it is our duty as citizens in a democratic society, to look after those that have not been as lucky as ourselves, this is what makes us human beings. Disabled people do not want to be dependent on benefits, they want to work and as a result they make fantastic employees. They are incredibly proud to be able to contribute to society for example, simply by paying tax because it gives them a huge sense of self-worth, as it would anyone but more so because of the difficult challenges they face.
Fundamentally if the bigger picture is considered, and support is given to the organisation and its workforce to set up a separate company, the result can only be a positive one. As all parties will benefit and essentially the integrity of Pluss will be preserved.