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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories