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British Jobs for British Workers?

chris bryantOne thing’s for certain, Tony wouldn’t have stood for it. The shambolic bungling of today’s “big speech” by shadow immigration spokesperson, Chris Bryant lacked the smooth running of a Blair-era media operation. But Labour getting a handle on employers’ preferences for East European workers from a recognisably labour movement point-of-view would never have passed muster back then either.

To be honest, I’m not interested in the media’s mischief-making about first and second drafts of Chris’s speech. Anecdotally – and reinforced by Channel 4 News features on it last night – it is true that Tesco and Next are hiring in East European workers, and often in places where the supply of labour is plentiful. In both cases warehouse working is involved.

Both companies argue that their actions are “fair” because everyone, whether Poles, Czechs, Lats, Lithuanians or local are paid the minimum wage. Nor do Tesco or Next shirk their National Insurance responsibilities. Neither the spirit nor the letter are violated. Everything is above board and within the law. But as the C4 report notes, despite the back-pedalling, anecdotal evidence suggests that Tesco moving its distribution centre was an occasion for an assault on the pay and conditions of workers. If hiring lots of East Europeans on minimum wage six-month rolling contracts isn’t about forcing down the price and increasing the flexibility of warehousing labour, you can only assume it’s a fortuitous circumstance that Tesco and Next would profit handsomely from this.

Hence these sharp practices are widespread for precisely this reason. However, interestingly, in the old job a firm was brought to our attention for doing exactly the same as Tesco and Next were doing, and luckily I had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting where management of the company concerned explained the situation.

We were told that, unfortunately, local workers (particularly young workers) were not well-suited to the discipline of warehouse work. It demands unsociable hours that – apparently – clash with the social lives of young adults. More often than not people would be taken on who would then drop out very quickly. It cost the company money in training as employees never reached full productive capacity and therefore realise the investment each represented. Entry level was minimum wage and a worker who stuck it out after six months would start going up the pay grades – but transition to a new contract. As the labour market wasn’t producing the workers they required, they extensively made use of Czechs and Poles who, in the company’s opinion, had a much better ethic of labour discipline, punctuality and long-term commitment. Had someone from Tesco or Next agreed to be interviewed, exactly the same argument would have been advanced. They daren’t say lazy British workers, but it’s what they think. From the standpoint of managing a for-profit company, it makes some sort of logical sense. Fairness, however, doesn’t come into it.

Unlike Tesco or Next, the warehouse jobs offered by the company were minimum wage from the outset. There were not, as far as I can recall, any premiums attached to unsociable working. Perhaps if wages were slightly more generous recruitment and retention would not be a problem. After all, how much money would have been saved if the job paid decently from the outset as opposed to the actual costs of high staff turnover? How about offering job security too? Why take on a six month minimum wage contract with no security when a labour market, as tight and limited as Stoke-on-Trent’s is, has greater opportunities to offer? The third is about unsociable hours. Delivery and dispatch times are not iron laws of nature. Companies can, if they wish, seek to minimise their necessity and thereby make themselves a more attractive place to work.

To be fair to this particular employer, it does recognise a union and they are pushing along these lines. This, however, is a sector-wide problem. There are ways and means for the government to step in, but it comes down to the kind of economy you want. And the Tory/LibDem coalition are totally okay with low paid ‘indigenous’ workers facing off against East Europeans in a race to the bottom. It is nevertheless refreshing to see Labour cut to the quick and speak to this issue without stirring the pot of hate and prejudice.

2 Comments

  1. Rob the cripple says:

    The fact is British Jobs for British workers failed for Brown and it will fail for Miliband.

    If not why has Labour refused the British Public a referendum, the British public are not stupid but Labour do think we are.

    If we are in the EU and we are part of the EU and Labour have stated it’s a good deal to the people, why are you now moaning about migration/ immigration, the little islander syndrome.

    The fact is Labour have stated EU Migration is good immigration is good EU migration is great, so get one and work with it or dam well let us have a vote.

  2. The party of big business has always supported the unrestricted flow of cheap labour from any and everywhere, and it always will.

    Labour took a very different view, but it changed tack when it became relatively distant from the unions, and far closer to big business, a process which ended with a sitting Prime Minister’s being questioned inside Downing Street under police caution.

    But those days are gone. And sweet revenge was had in making Chris Bryant – a diehard Blairite, Europhile and neocon – read out the new direction.

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