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12 August 2013

Before and after: how Chris Bryant’s speech on immigration was changed

The shadow immigration minister's disastrous morning is a lesson in the perils of pre-briefing.

By George Eaton

After his blundering performance on the Today programme, in which he downplayed his criticism of Tesco and Next for their use of foreign workers, it was unsurprising that Chris Bryant’s speech on immigration differed significantly from the pre-briefing given to the Sunday Telegraph

According to the Telegraph, the shadow immigration minister was due to say of Tesco:

Take the case of Tesco, who recently decided to move their distribution centre in Kent. The new centre is larger and employs more people, but the staff at original site, most of them British, were told that they could only move to the new centre if they took a cut in pay. The result? A large percentage of the staff at the new centre are from Eastern bloc.

But after Tesco pointed out that no such distribution centre existed in Kent and that it had recruited 350 “local people” for its new centre in Dagenham, all of whom were paid more than the minimum wage, Bryant instead said: 

Take Tesco. A good employer and an important source of jobs in Britain. They take on young people, operate apprenticeships and training schemes and often recruit unemployed or disabled staff through job centres. Yet when a distribution centre was moved to a new location existing staff said they would have lost out by transferring and the result was a higher proportion of staff from A8 countries taking up the jobs. Tesco are clear they have tried to recruit locally. And I hope they can provide more reassurance for their existing staff. But the fact that staff are raising concern shows how sensitive the issue has become.

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In the case of Next, Bryant was due to say:

Look at Next PLC, who last year brought 500 Polish workers to work in their South Elmsall [West Yorkshire] warehouse for their summer sale and another 300 this summer. They were recruited in Poland and charged £50 to find them accommodation. The advantage to Next? They get to avoid Agency Workers Regulations which apply after a candidate has been employed for over 12 weeks, so Polish temps end up considerably cheaper than the local workforce which includes many former Next employees.

But after Next replied that “agency workers from Poland cost us exactly the same as local agency workers” and that “the nationality of workers in no way affects their rights under agency workers regulations”, Bryant instead said:

Next PLC recruited extra temporary staff for their South Elmsall warehouse for the summer sale – last year and this year. South Elmsall is in a region with 9% unemployment and 23.8% youth unemployment. Yet several hundred people were recruited directly from Poland. The recruitment agency Next used, Flame, has its web-site, www.flamejobs.pl, entirely in Polish.  Now of course short term contracts and work are sometimes necessary in order to satisfy seasonal spikes in demand. But when agencies bring such a large number of workers of a specific nationality at a time when there are one million young unemployed in Britain it is right to ask why that is happening.

It’s not illegal for Agencies to target foreign workers. But is it fair for them to be so exclusive? Is it fair on migrant workers who can find themselves tied into agency accommodation deals? And is it good practice for the long term health of the economy when so many local young people need experience and training?

Next also say they have tried to recruit locally. But I want to see more companies providing assurances and demonstrating what they are doing to train and recruit local staff – particularly the young unemployed – even for temporary posts, rather than using agencies that only bring workers in from abroad.

The pity about today’s debacle is that Bryant is undoubtedly right when he says that “unscrupulous employers” have used foreign workers to undercut their domestic counterparts. But by failing to fact-check his speech and by clumsily pre-briefing it to the Telegraph, he ensured that point would be lost today.