Labour frontbencher Chris Bryant has been forced to back down over criticism of high street store chains Tesco and Next for using foreign workers.
The shadow immigration minister insisted he had never intended to suggest the firms were “unscrupulous” after advance extracts of a keynote speech he is making were leaked to a newspaper.
In the extracts, he attacked “unscrupulous employers” who brought over large numbers of workers to the UK from low-wage EU countries, putting them up in substandard accommodation, without paying the national minimum wage, and undercutting local workers.
He then went on to highlight a new Tesco distribution centre “in Kent”, where he said a “large percentage” of the staff were from the former eastern bloc, and Next’s Elmsall warehouse, where hundreds of Polish workers were employed for the summer sales.
But after the two firms complained publicly about the allegations, Mr Bryant said his comments about “unscrupulous” employers had not been aimed specifically at them and elements of his speech – which he delivers today – had been “conflated” in some press reports.
“I fully accept that Next and Tesco often go the extra mile to try and recruit local workers,” he said. “The difficulty is, I would say, that the way we regulate our economy and the labour market in the UK has meant that sometimes there are negative sides to migration in terms of the labour market, in particular for those who are within spitting distance of the national minimum wage.
“The very simple point is that both Tesco and Next have had to use non-UK nationals in their new operations – in Next’s case, two summers in a row in relatively large numbers. My question is, and always was going to be, and still remains today, when we have one million unemployed youngsters under the age of 24 in this country, and we have a very high level of long-term unemployment, is there a way in which we can regulate labour markets in this country better so foreign migrant workers are not exploited, as happens in some cases?
“I am not saying that specifically about Tesco and Next.”
He acknowledged that the Tesco distribution centre he was referring to was in Dagenham in the east London borough of Barking and Dagenham, formerly in Essex, and not Kent. “I don’t know where Kent came into it. It was always Essex,” he said.
Both companies have strongly defended their practices.
Next said 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.
A Tesco spokesman 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 Dagenham.”
In the speech to be delivered to the IPPR centre-left think-tank in London, Mr Bryant even 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.
“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 said. He acknowledged that firms such as Next sometimes needed to employ workers on short-term contracts.
But he added: “Now, of course, short-term contracts and work are sometimes necessary in order to satisfy seasonal spikes in demand. But when agencies bring such a large number of workers of a specific nationality at a time when there are one million young unemployed in Britain, it is right to ask why that is happening.”
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”.