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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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?