12 Aug 2013

Labour’s Chris Bryant backtracks in Tesco and Next row

Labour’s Chris Bryant MP is forced to back down on claims about Tesco and Next. But Channel 4 News speaks to foreign Tesco workers who say he might just have had a point.

The Labour frontbencher denied he had criticised the high street chains Tesco and Next for using foreign workers on cheap wages.

Key passages in the much anticipated speech he delivered on Monday had been altered compared to the version released over the weekend.

The shadow minister for borders and immigration praised Tesco as “a good employer and an important source of jobs in Britain” but suggested it needed to provide more assurance about its recruitment practices at Dagenham.

He rejected claims made in the Sunday Telegraph that he described Tesco and Next as “unscrupulous employers” who brought over large numbers of workers to the UK from low-wage EU countries.

Channel 4 News spoke to Tesco and Next staff, who said that a large number of foreign-born workers were employed by the companies, for lower pay and on short-term contracts.

One Tesco worker said that transferring from their old distribution centre in Harlow to the new one in Dagenham would eventually cost him £8,000 a year in pay. The union representing Tesco workers says that – as a result of the lower pay on offer at Dagenham – a bigger proportion of staff there are from eastern Europe.

Speaking at the IPPR centre-left think tank in London, Mr Bryant, told Channel 4 News: “I still want to ask [Tesco and Next] questions.

“Most people in this country will simply say, how can it be when you have 23.8 per cent youth unemployment in an area, that it’s necessary to bring in 300 or 500 workers from elsewhere, even for temporary work.”

He added:”Tesco are clear they have tried to recruit locally. And I hope they can provide more reassurance for their existing staff. But the fact that staff are raising concern shows how sensitive the issue has become.”

He also acknowledged that firms like Next sometimes needed to employ workers on short-term contracts, but questioned its reliance on workers from Poland.
“Now, of course, short-term contracts and work are sometimes necessary in order to satisfy seasonal spikes in demand,” he said.

“But when agencies bring such a large number of workers of a specific nationality at a time when there are 1 million young unemployed in Britain it is right to ask why that is happening.”

Both Tesco and Next have strongly defended their practices. Next said that it employed Polish agency workers to help manage the “short burst of activity” over its popular summer sale.

“Mr Bryant wrongly claims that Polish workers are used to save money. This is simply not true. We are deeply disappointed Mr Bryant did not bother to check his facts with the company before releasing his speech,” a spokesman said.

“In fact, agency workers from Poland cost us exactly the same as local agency workers, and our existing employees. The only reason we seek the help of people from Poland is that we simply can’t recruit enough local people to satisfy these spikes in demand for temporary work.”

A spokesman for Tesco said: “It is wrong to accuse Tesco of this. We work incredibly hard to recruit from the local area, and have just recruited 350 local people to work in our Dagenham site.”

Speech U-turn

The speech delivered on Monday was largely altered from the version briefed to the Sunday Telegraph.

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.

Mr Bryant also scrapped a section claiming Next employed Polish workers to avoid agency workers’ regulations, which apply after a candidate has been employed for more than 12 weeks, “so Polish temps end up considerably cheaper than the local workforce, which includes many former Next employees”.