Labour frontbencher Chris Bryant in foreign workers climbdown

Labour frontbencher Chris Bryant has been forced into an embarrassing climbdown over criticism of high street store chains Tesco and Next for using foreign workers.

Chris Bryant.

The shadow immigration minister dropped key passages from a speech after advance extracts briefed to newspapers over the weekend drew a furious response from the companies.

He had been due to suggest that the supermarket giant deliberately drafted in cheap foreign staff when it moved distribution centres, and that Next employed Polish workers to avoid agency workers’ regulations.

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But the accusations were scrapped from the final text, and Mr Bryant also made clear he did not regard the firms as “unscrupulous” employers.

The controversy threatens to overshadow the MP’s wider messages about the exploitation of foreign workers, and British unemployment. It will also reinforce concerns about Labour’s failure to use Westminster’s summer lull to garner positive coverage.

The row erupted after the Sunday Telegraph reported that Mr Bryant would condemn companies that 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 had been due to highlight a new Tesco distribution centre “in Kent”, where he said a “large percentage” of the staff were from the eastern bloc, and Next’s warehouse in South Elmsall, West Yorkshire, where hundreds of Polish workers were employed for the summer sales.

But interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning Mr Bryant said: “I fully accept that Next and Tesco often go the extra mile to try and recruit local workers.

“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 that foreign migrant workers are not exploited, as happens in some cases?”

“I am not saying that specifically about Tesco and Next.”

He also admitted that the Tesco distribution centre he was referring to was in Dagenham, east London, and not Kent.

“I don’t know where Kent came into it. It was always Essex,” he said.

He added: “It is entirely my responsibility for my speech and the pre-briefing of my speech beforehand.”

Delivering his address to the ippr think-tank in London, Mr Bryant 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 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 one million young unemployed in Britain, it is right to ask why that is happening.”

He said that other sectors of the economy had been far more heavily affected, with the hospitality, care and construction sectors all having consistently high levels of recruitment from abroad.

“Tourism is one of our largest industries and yet I have heard horror tales of hotel management deliberately cutting hours of young British workers and adding hours to migrant workers who do not complain about deductions from earnings that almost certainly take people below the minimum wage,” he said.

“Unscrupulous employers should not be allowed to recruit workers in large numbers in low-wage countries in the EU, bring them to the UK, charge the costs of their travel and their substandard accommodation against their wages and still not even meet the national minimum wage.

“That is unfair. It exploits migrant workers and it makes it impossible for settled workers with mortgages and a family to support at British prices to compete.”

Asked if Tesco had spoken to him following yesterday’s press reports, Mr Bryant said: “I’ve not personally had conversations with either Next or Tesco.

“I’m not back-tracking from my basic point.”

Mr Bryant said his point was that if migration was to work for everyone then big employers, including Tesco and Next which are “scrupulous about trying to employ” local workers, have a duty to the community to try to hire staff locally.

When asked if he regretted using Tesco and Next as examples, Mr Bryant said: “If I regretted using them I wouldn’t have used them again today.

“It’s a bigger speech about a lot of things but I’m happy with where we’ve got to now.”

The MP said he had not got his facts wrong and Tesco and Next had not denied his central points about the numbers of foreign workers used and the effect it has had on the local workforce.

Mr Bryant said: “I applaud them for the good things they have done but I think we should be able to raise questions when we’ve got one million young people unemployed.”

Both companies 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.”