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

Photo: Getty
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What will the 2017 local elections tell us about the general election?

In her timing of the election, Theresa May is taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book. 

Local elections are, on the whole, a much better guide to the next general election than anything the polls might do.

In 2012, Kevin Cunningham, then working in Labour’s targeting and analysis team, surprised his colleagues by announcing that they had lost the 2015 election. Despite gaining 823 councillors and taking control of 32 more local authorities, Cunningham explained to colleagues, they hadn’t made anything like the gains necessary for that point in the parliament. Labour duly went on to lose, in defiance of the polls, in 2015.

Matt Singh, the founder of NumberCruncherPolitics, famously called the polling failure wrong, in part because Labour under Ed Miliband had underperformed their supposed poll share in local elections and parliamentary by-elections throughout the parliament.

The pattern in parliamentary by-elections and local elections under Jeremy Corbyn before the European referendum all pointed the same way – a result that was not catastrophically but slightly worse than that secured by Ed Miliband in 2015. Since the referendum, thanks to the popularity of Theresa May, the Conservative poll lead has soared but more importantly, their performance in contests around the country has improved, too.

As regular readers will know, I was under the impression that Labour’s position in the polls had deteriorated during the coup against Corbyn, but much to my surprise, Labour’s vote share remained essentially stagnant during that period. The picture instead has been one of steady deterioration, which has accelerated since the calling of the snap election. So far, voters buy Theresa May’s message that a large majority will help her get a good Brexit deal. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

If the polls are correct, assuming a 2020 election, what we would expect at the local elections would be for Labour to lose around 100 councillors, largely to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives to pick up around 100 seats too, largely to the detriment of Ukip.

But having the local elections just five weeks before the general elections changes things. Basically, what tends to happen in local elections is that the governing party takes a kicking in off-years, when voters treat the contests as a chance to stick two fingers up to the boost. But they do better when local elections are held on the same day as the general election, as voters tend to vote for their preferred governing party and then vote the same way in the elections on the same day.

The Conservatives’ 2015 performance is a handy example of this. David Cameron’s Tories gained 541 councillors that night. In 2014, they lost 236, in 2013 they lost 335, and in 2012 they lost 405. In 2011, an usually good year for the governing party, they actually gained 86, an early warning sign that Miliband was not on course to win, but one obscured because of the massive losses the Liberal Democrats sustained in 2011.

The pattern holds true for Labour governments, too. In 2010, Labour gained 417 councillors, having lost 291 and 331 in Gordon Brown’s first two council elections at the helm. In 2005, with an electoral map which, like this year’s was largely unfavourable to Labour, Tony Blair’s party only lost 114 councillors, in contrast to the losses of 464 councillors (2004), 831 councillors (2003) and 334 councillors (2002).  This holds true all the way back to 1979, the earliest meaningful comparison point thanks to changes to local authorities’ sizes and electorates, where Labour (the governing party) gained council seats after years of losing them.

So here’s the question: what happens when local elections are held in the same year but not the same day as local elections? Do people treat them as an opportunity to kick the government? Or do they vote “down-ticket” as they do when they’re held on the same day?

Before looking at the figures, I expected that they would be inclined to give them a miss. But actually, only the whole, these tend to be higher turnout affairs. In 1983 and 1987, although a general election had not been yet called, speculation that Margaret Thatcher would do so soon was high. In 1987, Labour prepared advertisements and a slogan for a May election. In both contests, voters behaved much more like a general election, not a local election.

The pattern – much to my surprise – holds for 1992, too, when the Conservatives went to the country in April 1992, a month before local elections. The Conservatives gained 303 seats in May 1992.

What does this mean for the coming elections? Well, basically, a good rule of thumb for predicting general elections is to look at local election results, and assume that the government will do a bit better and the opposition parties will do significantly worse.

(To give you an idea: two years into the last parliament, Labour’s projected national vote share after the local elections was 38 per cent. They got 31 per cent. In 1985, Labour’s projected national vote share based on the local elections was 39 per cent, they got 30 per cent. In 2007, the Conservatives projected share of the vote was 40 per cent – they got 36 per cent, a smaller fall, but probably because by 2010 Gordon Brown was more unpopular even than Tony Blair had been by 2007.)

In this instance, however, the evidence suggests that the Tories will do only slightly better and Labour and the Liberal Democrats only slightly worse in June than their local election performances in May. Adjust your sense of  what “a good night” for the various parties is accordingly. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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