Tesco's treatment of its workers shows why we must stop subsidising it

After allegations of mistreatment of disabled and agency workers, the government should consider asking Tesco to repay the generous grants it has received, says Conservative MP Robert Halfon.

Last year, Tesco made a pre-tax profit of £3.5bn. As Dennis Skinner has pointed out, in recent years the supermarket giant has received subsidies from "development agencies, European money, central government, local government" and more. In addition, tax credits have helped to subsidise Tesco's wage bill and it now even runs a "Home Efficiency" business to take the best advantage of taxpayer subsidies for solar panels.

These subsidies might be defensible if Tesco were a responsible employer. But I am increasingly sceptical of this. In fact, I have been shocked at Tesco’s treatment of 800 workers in my constituency of Harlow, many of whom are now at risk of redundancy. In particular, there have been serious allegations of:
  1. Maltreatment of disabled workers
  2. Attacks on equal pay
  3. Poor treatment of agency and full-time staff
The story begins a few months ago, when Tesco announced that it was building a large distribution plant in Dagenham. Staff were told that the Harlow distribution hub would stay open and that they would keep their jobs. Jon Cruddas - Dagenham’s MP - was told the same thing. So was the USDAW trade union.
Then, Tesco decided to pull out of the US and something changed. Despite the Harlow depot being one of the best performing in the country, Tesco decided it had to shut it down. Almost 800 workers faced the sack.
Like all big companies, Tesco has made some offers of alternative employment. This includes the option of transferring to Dagenham. But the gesture has been half-hearted at best. Agency workers or support workers, such as catering teams, will be shut out. Terms and conditions will be ripped up. Pay will be slashed. Contractual entitlements, such as higher rates of pay for overtime, will be scaled back. Despite having to commute to Dagenham each day from Harlow, many workers will now lose a third of their take-home pay, or lose their job. One worker told me that he will lose nearly £10,000 a year.
Most shocking of all is Tesco's treatment of disabled workers. One worker is approaching retirement, and suffers from epilepsy and arthritis. He has worked hard for Tesco over the last 24 years. At the Harlow depot, Tesco has rightly made adjustments to allow him to do a day’s work. However, if he goes to Dagenham, he will not be allowed to take these adjustments with him - pushing him on to the dole.
Worryingly, one disabled employee, who has a degenerative back condition, has allegedly been threatened by Tesco. In a recent meeting, he was told by a Tesco manager that if he continued talking to me - his local MP - then he would be fired, instead of being transferred elsewhere. Surely this is morally wrong? USDAW estimates that there are around 30 disabled staff from Harlow who will be affected in this way.
Agency staff are victims too. Tesco has insisted that agency workers will not be allowed to transfer to another site. Instead, they will be shown the door. There are around 140 of these people, mostly from eastern Europe, who also work extremely long hours. This is despite being paid less for doing exactly the same work as permanent Tesco colleagues. I have been told that Tesco are able to do this by employing the "Swedish Derogation" loophole in the Agency Workers Regulations: i.e. allowing an agency to employ staff on a minimum contract, where they continue to be paid between assignments, but must waive their rights to equal pay. Parliament should consider if this practice is really in keeping with the spirit of British workers' rights.
At heart, this is an issue of fairness. It cannot be right that companies can get away with paying agency workers much less for doing exactly the same job. It is wrong that disabled workers should be treated so poorly. But, finally, the government must consider if it should ask Tesco to repay the generous grants it has received from the taxpayer, for example in Bolsover, where Tesco received money to set up its distribution factory, which it is also now closing. Any type of supportive grant should be stopped unless Tesco can guarantee fair treatment for its workers.
Although I understand the need for efficiency, particularly in light of Tesco’s failure to break into the US market, it is wrong that Harlow workers, who have given years of their lives in service to a multi-billion pound company, are paying for its corporate mistakes. In the last few weeks, I have had messages from  people saying that I should not be campaigning against Tesco, that I should be supporting its stance as a Conservative. But it is precisely because I am a Conservative that I am opposed to how Tesco is treating its workers. Conservatism was never meant to be about big corporations: it is about the rights of families and ordinary people; about helping them to stand up to monolithic corporations and big government. In fact, one of the reasons that I support trade unions - and am a Conservative trade unionist myself - is because of the impressive work of USDAW in supporting the people of Harlow in recent months.
Tesco founder Jack Cohen famously said "Pile it high, sell it cheap". I doubt he would ever have meant sell the workers cheap.
Editor's note: Tesco has now reached agreement with USDAW on the terms on which the Harlow site will close. The company said: "We are very pleased for all parties that an agreement has been reached with USDAW representatives, and that subject to a member vote, this matter is now resolved."
Tesco has also denied that its Bolsover plant received any public subsidy and has pointed out that the agencies who provided staff for Harlow have been awarded the contracts for Dagenham, so many agency workers will move from one site to the other.
People leave a Tesco Extra supermarket in Birkenhead, north-west England, on March 5, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow. He tweets at @halfon4harlowMP

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.