Satchels stitch up a brighter future
They're producing top quality bags wanted around the world - from traditional school satchels to the hi-tech equipment carriers used by paramedics - and all from a quiet side street...
In a factory tucked away down a side street in north Belfast, staff are working hard to make 90% of all the equipment bags users carried in the back of Northern Ireland's fire engines and all the equipment bags carried in our ambulances and by our paramedics.
Most of the wheelchair cushions issued by Musgrave Park hospital are also made in the unassuming building on Cambrai Street, between the Shankill and Crumlin Roads.
And the most remarkable thing about the workforce is that the 75% of staff on the factory floor have a disability or health-related condition. Most are registered blind or visually impaired.
Ulster Supported Employment (USEL), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is one of Northern Ireland's main providers of training for people with disabilities, helping to place people into 'real life' working environments and supporting them in those posts, making sure that both they and their employers benefit. And with welfare reform looming - and with thousands standing to lose their benefits - USEL is more relevant now than ever before.
While USEL is making a name for itself in making products especially for the blue light services - like making the bags for defibrillator packs for use at GAA grounds, easy-carry medic packs for paramedics and protective flaps for firemen's backpacks to protect breathing apparatus - the social economy is also moving into the fashion world.
USEL workers have been making traditional brown leather schoolbags for almost half a century and they have now extended to include fashion ranges on a dedicated website, www.vintagesatchelcompany.co.uk, with orders coming in from as far away as the US.
The company has just signed a supplier deal worth more than £60,000 with over 300 units waiting to ship out to England. There are currently 85 bags - many of which are made from recycled leather - on the December order book through the website.
Additionally, USEL make beds under the Slumberin range - something which is particularly suited to manufacture by blind and visually impaired workers - sold by 80% of independent furniture retailers in Northern Ireland.
The Cambrai Street factory also has screen-printing and embroidering capability, and a large car manufacturer is in talks with a view to creating products from recycled rubber tyres.
USEL chief executive Sam Humphries, who previously worked in the private sector, said that rather than the old-fashioned approach of "sheltered employment" where people with disabilities were sent into the factories and slotted into roles, prospective staff are now assessed according to their needs and capabilities. "Our ethos is to support, provide and promote employment for people who have barriers to employment, whether that be physical, mental or social," he said. "As well as providing work for people with physical difficulties and barriers to work, as we did historically, we are now offering more services to people who have what we call social barriers to work, like the second and third generation unemployed.
"People forget with long-term or generationally unemployed people, things like getting up in the morning, knowing how to dress and present themselves, knowing how to physically get to work, are all part of the learning process.
"We offer pre-employment opportunities and training and we work alongside Northern Ireland companies to help facilitate people into work.
"At a time when fit and able-bodied people are competing for the same jobs, of course it is a tough atmosphere, but I have to say, despite seeing some of the highest unemployment levels in recent history, both in the past and in the present, companies here have always been very helpful and accommodating in offering opportunities.
"Through us, people who are referred to us via job centres and benefits offices can have assistance in looking for a job, assistance with producing a CV, help with interviews, support with induction and we would regularly visit them in their new jobs to see how they are getting on.
"We also advertise commercially through the normal channels for recruitment. We think placements are very important.
"Some clients do two or three different placements and in the end become very successful - but if it were not for the opportunity to do those placements, how would we ever know what people are good at?
"There are many, many people caught in the benefits trap and quite simply, the important message is to show that work pays.
"Not just financially but in enhancing skills and improving people's mental and physical wellbeing." Despite the challenges, USEL is establishing itself as a unique provider of a diverse range of products across different markets.
"In the past we tended to follow the trend but now we are using the skills of the workforce to lead the pack and evolve and take our production line to the next level.
"We're one of Northern Ireland's best kept secrets and we've expanded to make products for fire, ambulance and police services all over the UK as well as here at home in Northern Ireland.
"We don't actually make a big deal of who makes our products because we want to sell them on the strength of their quality, not because of a pity or sympathy sell.
"Social enterprises are built on sustainability.
"We are not just nice people doing nice things, we are highly innovative and do an awful lot with very little. Like private sector firms, we are aiming to make a profit on the items we sell, and to re-invest that profit.
"Market leading social enterprises such as ourselves and Bryson do well because we look to reduce our reliance on grants and aim to be self-sustainable.
"Like any other businesses, we have concerns like cash flow, working capital, keeping our order books full.
"We are constantly looking for new ways to evolve and expand.
"In social enterprises, you see co-operation as well as competition with private sector firms and public sector bodies.
"We're in talks with other companies and organisations across the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the UK to see whether our skills and expertise can be spread to wider marketplaces outside of Northern Ireland."
- Ulster Supported Employment Ltd (USEL) was established in 1962 to provide supported paid employment for people with disabilities in Belfast
- Its origins can be traced back nearly a century earlier to 1871, when Mary Hobson founded the Workshops for the Blind
- Premises were sourced at 6 Howard Street in Belfast for £75 per year and were adapted to provide working room for 20 to 30 blind people.
- When Workshops for the Blind moved to Lawnbrook Avenue in Belfast USEL rented premises from them and in 1980, merged with the organisation to become the largest supporter of people with disabilities into open employment within Northern Ireland.
- In 2001 they moved from Lawnbrook Avenue to a large modern factory in Cambrai Street, Belfast, to achieve their mission "to expand the choice of paid job opportunities for people with disabilities and health related conditions and by means of training and development assist with progression into and within mainstream employment"