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Two major British retailers, clothing retailer Next and supermarket giant Tesco , have been accused by the Labour Party of recruiting cheaper Eastern European workers at the expense of local people.
Chris Bryant, Labour’s Shadow Immigration Minister, commented: “It is unfair that unscrupulous employers, whose only interest seems to be finding labour as cheaply as possible, will recruit workers in large number in low-wage countries in the EU.” Mr Bryant’s speech was leaked to the media over the weekend but the final version delivered this morning was far more conciliatory.
In the original version of the speech, Next has been accused by Mr Bryant of recruiting 500 Polish workers last summer to work in one of their warehouses. This summer they are believed to have recruited 300 temporary workers from Poland.
Mr Bryant commented: “[The temporary workers] were recruited in Poland and charged £50 to find them accommodation. The advantage to Next? They get to avoid the Agency Workers Regulations, which apply after a candidate has been employed for over 12 weeks, so Polish temps end up considerably cheaper than the local workforce, which includes many former Next employees.”
Given that the Labour Party, when it was in Government, was responsible for implementing the Agency Workers Regulations, it is very surprising that one of the Shadow Cabinet should fail to understand that the legislation will apply to Polish temporary agency workers as much as to British temporary agency workers.
Next responded to the accusations by stating that the firm had been forced to look abroad for workers, not to save money, but because it had been unable to recruit temporary workers in Britain. In a statement, Next advised: “Mr Bryant also makes the false claim that the use of Polish workers enables Next to avoid agency working regulations. For clarity, the nationality of workers in no way affects their rights under agency workers regulations, a fact My Bryant should be aware of.”
Supermarket giant Tesco was also targeted by Chris Bryant in the leaked version of the speech: “Take the case of Tesco; they recently decided to move a distribution centre in the south-east [of England]. The new centre is larger and employs more people. But it has been alleged that the staff at the original site were told that they could only move to the new centre if they took a cut in pay. The result… a bigger percentage of the staff at the new centre are from Eastern bloc countries,”
Mr Bryant found an unlikely ally in Conservative MP for Harlow, Robert Halfron, who stated: “[Tesco] said they were building a new Dagenham plant and the Harlow plant in my own constituency would be alongside it. The moment the plant was built it was suddenly announced the Harlow plant would close. They then said to the British Harlow workers, yes, they could have jobs in Dagenham, but it would be at lower pay after transitional costs had been taken in.”
Tesco issued a statement rebutting the accusation: “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.”
Next further commented: “We very much hope that Mr Bryant, being appraised of the facts, will reconsider his claims when he comes to make his speech.” In media interviews this morning, Mr Bryant found himself having to defend the leaked speech and suggested that it had been misreported while still admitting: “It is entirely my responsibly for my speech and the briefing of my speech.”
Commenting on Chris Bryant’s media appearances this morning ahead of his speech on immigration, Kevin Green, CEO of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said: “Chris Bryant sounds painfully uninformed about UK employment regulation in his remarks about Tesco and Next. We will read the full text of his speech carefully to be sure he doesn’t make similarly criticisms of our members, British recruitment companies who work hard every day to help people find work, support British business, and grow the economy.”
When Mr Bryant eventually came to deliver the speech, his comments were much more guarded and he stressed that he had never intended to lump Tesco, or Next among the unscrupulous' employers, none of whom were actually named. He went on to say: "Even good British companies are affected by the impact of low-skilled migrant workers. Take Tesco, a good employer and an important source of jobs in Britain and an important source of jobs in Britain. They take on young people, operate apprenticeships and training schemes and often employ unemployed or disabled staff through job centres”.
Following the speech, REC CEO Kevin Green commented: "There was a distinct lack of substance to Chris Bryant's speech today and he had no clear evidence to show that British businesses have failed to comply with the current legislation around immigration and employment. There are clear rules and regulations that British businesses must adhere to when employing workers from the UK or abroad. Some companies may look to overseas staff to fill the positions that they have advertised and cannot fill in the UK, which is a legitimate practice and does not discriminate against UK workers. I would encourage Chris Bryant and the Labour party to engage with businesses and trade bodies to build a greater understanding of how immigration policy can be managed to support workers and businesses in the UK."