Chris Bryant forced to back down over claim Tesco and Next use cheap migrant workers

  • @andymcsmith

Shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant has backed down from his blunt claim that the supermarket giant Tesco had undercut the wages of its British employees by recruiting from eastern Europe.

The allegation was in a version of the speech briefed to a Sunday newspaper but was missing from the actual speech that he delivered this morning.

His earlier reported comments had produced a swift reply from Tesco, whose management contacted Mr Bryant's office to protest. They contested the allegation, and pointed out that though Mr Bryant was reported to be saying that the distribution centre in question was "in Kent", it is actually north of the River Thames, in Essex.

According to the briefed-out version of the speech, Mr Bryant had intended to say that staff working at the Tesco centre in Harlow, which was being moved to Dagenham, were told that "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."

When he came to deliver the speech, his comments about Tesco were more guarded. He said: "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.

"Yet when a distribution centre was moved to a new location, existing staff said they would have lost out from the transfer, and the result was a higher proportion of staff at the new site from (eastern European) countries taking part of the jobs. Tesco are clear that 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 concerns shows how sensitive the issue had become."

He also admitted that he had always meant to refer to Tesco's distribution centre in Essex, and did not know how it had come about that he was reported to think it was located in Kent.

The mix up will be frustrating for Labour, whose leader Ed Miliband has returned from a family holiday today amid accusations that the party has not been making any impact on public opinion over the this summer.

Mr Bryant's speech was a bold attempt to move into political territory in which it is usually assumed that Labour is on weak ground, and on which the Tories have been vociferous, notably by sending a van into areas where there is a high concentration of immigrants warning those who are in the UK illegally to "go home".

Rather than appear to be attacking immigrants for taking 'British' jobs, the shadow immigration minister aimed his fire at "unscrupulous" employers who undercut wages, use agencies that do not attempt to recruit in the UK, take on foreign workers for only a weeks at a time, and house them in crowded sub-standard accommodation.

But he was careful to stress today that he had never intended to lump Tesco, or the Next chain - also mentioned in his speech - among the 'unscrupulous' employers, none of whom he named.