Case study co-op: Enabled Works

Today (Wed 25th May) I went to visit one of my case study co-ops for this research, Enabled Works in Morley near Leeds. This visit was an exciting and inspiring (genuinely, not in the cliched and insulting “oh, you’re so inspiring!” way often aimed at disabled people) experience.

Enabled Works was formed by disabled workers from former Remploy ‘sheltered workshops’ in Leeds and Pontefract (with some input also from those in Bradford and York) when Remploy changed their focus from running sheltered workshops to aiming to integrate disabled people into ‘mainstream’ employment, and the workshops were closed. After hearing about workers’ co-ops from a trade union contact who had once been a member of one, the founding members, who I got to interview, fundraised at a union conference and sought advice from others in union and co-op movements, formed the co-op, and opened a business in a new site, retaining some former Remploy packing contracts and subsequently finding other sources of work and income.

A packing assembly line at Enabled Works, with a group of disabled workers with various impairments chatting while packing and unpacking boxes

This was a really fascinating story, as the co-op members are largely disabled people who had been employed in the sheltered workshops, with a variety of impairments, and who wouldn’t necessarily have had any knowledge or background in co-ops before forming Enabled Works. (I remember at the time of the major Remploy closures, around 10 years ago, wishing that there could have been workers’ buyouts of the closed factories to form workers’ co-ops, but not at all thinking that anyone would manage to actually do that – so it was incredibly exciting to find out that someone essentially actually did!)

The co-op has since employed some other disabled people without much previous work experience and worked with further education colleges to introduce young disabled people to the co-op. It was also great to hear about how, unlike both the former Remploy set-up and most other employers, the co-op seems to have a really strong ethos of valuing everyone’s contribution regardless of how many hours they can work and adapting the work to the person rather than vice versa, without compromising efficiency and productivity.

Part of the warehouse space at Enabled Works – a large room with a forklift truck in front of metal shelving with boxes and pallets

Enabled Works have a surprisingly large space with an atmosphere that is down-to-earth and practical, yet almost entirely without the feeling of regimented discipline and intolerance of deviance that typically permeates the factory/warehouse/assembly-line type workplaces that I have seen or experienced. All the workers who I met were proud about both their work and being a co-op. I had been worried about not managing to achieve the same rapport in interviews with them as with the more university-educated, queer, ‘activisty’ and highly online (i.e. like myself) people I have mostly been interviewing as individual participants, but they made me feel incredibly welcome – taking time out to show me the whole place despite their busy work schedules – and gave me a wealth of deeply relevant material.

I can’t remember how I first heard about Enabled Works, but I was surprised at how few people in both disability activist and co-op movement ‘worlds’ seemed to have heard about them. Apart from the trade unions and a bit of contact with a few specific people involved in other co-ops (such as Footprint), they seem to have evolved, and succeeded despite austerity, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, mainly on their own and without directly doing business with many other co-ops – one exception being York Disabled Workers Co-op, which shares their origins of former Remploy workers, and which I had somehow not managed to hear about before seeing their flyer at Enabled Works today!

A noticeboard in the reception area at Enabled Works, with various documents including a health and safety law poster pinned to it, and next to it a poster about “A Co-operative World” and a sign pointing to the disabled access lift

The members at Enabled Works all seemed to share my vision of promoting the idea of co-ops to disabled people who may not be aware that they exist, and of ‘seeding’ new local disability-focused co-ops. I’m hoping that there can be fruitful collaboration with them in the future, including potentially on a conference about disabled people and co-ops and/or a guide to setting up new co-ops for disabled people. Watch this space!

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