Bryant in foreign workers climbdown
Labour frontbencher Chris Bryant has been forced into an embarrassing climbdown over criticism of high street store chains Tesco and Next for using foreign workers.
The shadow immigration minister dropped key passages from a speech after advance extracts briefed to newspapers over the weekend drew a furious response from the companies.
He had been due to suggest that the supermarket giant deliberately drafted in cheap foreign staff when it moved distribution centres, and that Next employed Polish workers to avoid agency workers' regulations. But the accusations were scrapped from the final text, and Mr Bryant also made clear he did not regard the firms as "unscrupulous" employers.
The controversy threatens to overshadow the MP's wider messages about the exploitation of foreign workers, and British unemployment. It will also reinforce concerns about Labour's failure to use Westminster's summer lull to garner positive coverage.
The row erupted after the Sunday Telegraph reported that Mr Bryant would condemn companies that brought over large numbers of workers to the UK from low-wage EU countries, putting them up in substandard accommodation without paying the national minimum wage and undercutting local workers.
He had been due to highlight a new Tesco distribution centre "in Kent", where he said a "large percentage" of the staff were from the eastern bloc, and Next's warehouse in South Elmsall, West Yorkshire, where hundreds of Polish workers were employed for the summer sales.
But interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Bryant said: "I fully accept that Next and Tesco often go the extra mile to try and recruit local workers. The difficulty is, I would say, that the way we regulate our economy and the labour market in the UK has meant that sometimes there are negative sides to migration in terms of the labour market, in particular for those who are within spitting distance of the national minimum wage.
"The very simple point is that both Tesco and Next have had to use non-UK nationals in their new operations - in Next's case, two summers in a row in relatively large numbers.
"My question is, and always was going to be, and still remains today, when we have one million unemployed youngsters under the age of 24 in this country, and we have a very high level of long-term unemployment, is there a way in which we can regulate labour markets in this country better so that foreign migrant workers are not exploited, as happens in some cases? I am not saying that specifically about Tesco and Next."
Tesco chief operations director UK, Gerry Gray, hit back at criticisms of its policies in a strongly-worded blog on the firm's website. He wrote: "We absolutely refute any suggestion that we moved colleagues from Harlow to Dagenham to give them a 'pay cut' and reduce the wage bill. The Dagenham site is a multi-million pound development - it doesn't make sense to invest that sum of money in order to reduce a wage bill."