12 Aug 2013

Worker blows the whistle on Tesco’s recruitment tactics

Slowly but surely a veil seems to be lifting from the legally watertight but ethically questionable way some of Britain’s biggest businesses recruit their staff.

Tesco has strongly denied claims that it told workers they had to accept a pay cut to keep their jobs when being moved from one distribution centre, in Harlow, to a new site in Dagenham.

Yet Channel 4 News has spoken exclusively to a whistleblower, a Tesco employee from inside the Harlow distribution centre, who said that was exactly what Tesco had told them.

Simon Vincent isn’t a fly-by-night part-timer. He’s been working for the retail giant for 23 years and is also a union rep so he knows the precise terms Tesco laid on the table because he sat on the opposite side of it.

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The outcome was that Tesco, with a strike ballot looming, agreed to protect the Harlow workers’ previous terms and conditions for two years but thereafter staff would have to accept the same (lower) wage levels as other workers in the new Dagenham distribution centre. For Mr Vincent that equates to an £8,000 annual cut in pay as well as the additional daily costs of the round trip to Dagenham and back from his home.

Those terms were too much for most of the workers to bear and as a result only about 70, he says, of the roughly 500 full time staff agreed to the new terms. The rest took redundancy.

Foreign workers on low pay

But what’s even more frustrating, he says, is that at the same time as letting go of hundreds of its staff in Harlow, Tesco has been employing hundreds more foreign agency workers on lower pay.

Mr Vincent says that of the 800 staff at the old Harlow site, 25 per cent of them were in fact hired as casual workers through an agency called Staffline. And of those, he says, 98 percent were from Eastern European countries.

Now, Mr Vincent says it’s not clear that Tesco is physically bringing all the workers in from the EU but he does say that many of them are being housed in cheap accommodation, the price of which is then deducted from their wages (meaning it’s unlikely they will be earning the minimum wage). He told Channel 4 News: “They’re coming over here for a limited amount of time to earn enough money to take home. In poor accommodation and on poor wages as well – but better than the wages in Eastern Europe.”

He believes Tesco’s motivation for using foreign agency staff is purely financial. And he claims those are jobs that people in Harlow were and are desperate for.

Ironically today, as Labour’s Shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant appears to be desperately back-peddling from the story, it’s been left to the local Tory MP to take up the case. Robert Halfon told me in no uncertain terms that he believes Tesco had unscrupulously forced hundreds of his constituents in Harlow into redundancy while handing their jobs to lower paid migrant workers. He says it’s a disgrace and Britain needs to stand up to big businesses that treat their workers like cattle.

“[Tesco] has deeply damaged our community in Harlow,” he told Channel 4 News. “They’ve affected hundreds of people, they’ve affected their families, they’ve affected their friends and we’ve really suffered as a result of their actions.”

Chris Bryant backtrack

So many questions arise from all of this yet Tesco didn’t go anywhere near addressing half of them yesterday. Instead they said they had recruited 350 “local people” to work at its distribution centre in Dagenham and that the distribution centre was formerly in Essex, not Kent.

And in fact it seems a denial is all it’s taken to scare Labour’s Chris Bryant away.

He insisted on Monday that he had never intended to suggest the firms were “unscrupulous” while a passage claiming that staff at Tesco’s original distribution centre had been told “they could only move to the new centre if they took a cut in pay. The result? A large percentage of the staff at the new centre are from (the) Eastern bloc” was dropped altogether.

But questions remain. Like why are wages lower in Dagenham, 30 miles down the road from Harlow and in the same county of Essex? Does Tesco deny employing Eastern European workers at its Harlow plant and does it intend to employ them at the same level in Dagenham?

Why does it need agency staff in such numbers? And if it does, why are 98 percent of them foreign workers?

The clothing retailer Next has also been accused of the same tactics. It said the company last year specifically brought in 500 Polish workers at its South Elmsall warehouse in West Yorkshire to help meet demand. And 300 were used this summer. Next, unlike Tesco, doesn’t deny any of this and says it needs the extra staff during its busy summer sale period.

But it does leave you wondering why – with a million unemployed young British people – Next couldn’t hire from within the UK?
Mr Bryant may want this story to go away but something tells me that having stirred the hornet’s nest, there’s little he can do to flick it all away today.

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