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:
Maltreatment of disabled workers
Attacks on equal pay
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.