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Robert Halfon MP: Yes, Labour messed up migration. But there's nothing unConservative in criticising Tesco.

Robert Halfon is the MP Harlow and a member of the 1922 Committee's Executive. Follow Robert on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-08-12 at 10.57.02So much for Labour and the recasting of immigration policy.  Chris Bryant’s interview on Radio 4 Today was a car-crash, not just because mistakes were made in the pre-release  (Kent instead described as the place where Tesco closed a Distribution Centre, rather than Harlow, Essex, being a prime example), but because most fair-minded people know why we are in this mess in the first place.

The last Labour Government allowed de facto uncontrolled immigration, and grossly underestimated the amount of migrants who would come here - especially those from Eastern Europe. They also signed all the EU Directives that allowed big companies to hire agency workers on the cheap - in technical parlance, known as ‘The Swedish Derogation’.

But behind the political posturing, there is a more serious point:  the
problem of big corporate juggernauts, and the way they treat their

My own experience with Tesco in Harlow has not been a happy one.  A new distribution centre was built in Dagenham. Workers were told both in Harlow and in Dagenham that the plant would be in addition to the one in Harlow.  Surprise surprise, when the bigger Dagenham plant was fully operational, the Harlow plant was told it would be closed. Workers in the Harlow centre were offered jobs in Dagenham, but for reduced pay - after transitional arrangements had been completed.

For some workers in Harlow, this meant a loss of £8000 upwards, even though they would have been doing the same jobs.  This huge loss of income was clearly unsustainable for workers with families to feed and mortgages to pay. As a result most have had to take redundancy.  Disabled workers given adjustments in Harlow also told me that they were not being offered the same adjustments in Dagenham, making it impossible for them to take on employment.  Were it not for the positive activities of the trade union Usdaw, it is likely that even the transitional arrangements given to workers who took the Dagenham employment, would have been much worse.

Like other companies, Tesco have taken full advantage of ‘The Swedish Derogation’ and there were workers from overseas in the Harlow plant doing the same job as Harlow residents, but employed on lower wages.  Tesco say that they are employing local people in the Dagenham plant. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, it would be interesting to know how many ‘agency’ workers are employed alongside, and at what wages?  It also seems inexplicable that workers in Dagenham are paid less than in Harlow, given that the two areas are not that far apart and Dagenham forms part of the Greater London/Essex nexus.

Clearly, there is a wider problem here. Tesco’s activities in this arena are not unique. Yet we increasingly face a situation that bigger companies get away with treating workers badly, under the guise of cost-cutting - or because of bad commercial decisions - think the Tesco disastrous American adventure for example.

The ideologue’s response to this is ‘who cares’, ‘the free market is the free market’, Conservatives should support all business’, or it helps keep prices down et al.

Lets deal first with ‘prices’: the logical extension of this - where does this stop? Why not pay workers £1 an hour, as that would really keep prices down ? Of course, such an idea would be ludicrous.

Second, support for ‘business’.  Conservatives should support small business and ‘fair business’, not mega-corps, abusing their market position.

Third, the free market. Is there really a free market, when companies have huge dominance, own vast swathes of land, and have the financial muscle to force councils to support planning decisions in their favour?

Finally, ‘who cares’?  We have to be the party of fairness - this means recognising that whilst Conservatives are right to reform public services, then it is also right to reform mega-corps too. We need to get away from the mantra, 'public sector bad, private sector good," when often the opposite is the case. The problem is corporatism, not capitalism.  If we are to be the party of reform and help the lower-paid, and those in the private sector who are being treated badly, they need to know that Conservatives are on their side.

That means no more subsidies/grants for big business with bad practices. A recognition that trade unions have a positive role to play in negotiation and looking after the interests of the workers, especially in larger companies. Tax breaks for smaller companies, to help them compete against the corporations. A change in the law to stop ‘agency workers’ being hired at cheaper wages if they are doing the same job as local workers.

Tesco’s motto was ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’.  Watching the Tesco saga unfold in Harlow, I sometimes think it is now ‘pile the money high, sell the workers cheap’.  There is nothing un-Conservative in recognising this.


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