12 Aug 2013
August 12, 2013

Chris Bryant, foreigners, Tesco.


When a politician delivers a speech, s/he often pre-releases the text with ‘check against delivery’ etched along the top and bottom of each page. They do that to ensure that journalists allow for any differences between what’s been put out in advance and what’s actually said when the speech is ‘delivered’. Sometimes, if the politician extemporises, they miss out a bit of the text in front of them.  On other occasions, though, they have a change of heart between releasing and delivering; that’s when journalists report on the reason for the backtrack.

Chris Bryant MP, Shadow Home Office minister, backtracked today over criticisms he was due to make of Tesco and Next regarding their hiring practices.

The general point he wanted to make was that British workers are allegedly shunned by some employers who see financial benefits in hiring non-British workers. I was surprised to see Tesco and Next singled out in this way, though, since it seemed to me unlikely that either would deploy ‘unscrupulous’ devices, sure to attract bad PR, in return for what would seem like a very marginal benefit to them.

In the event, Tesco and Next both hit back and, it seems, forced Chris Bryant to praise them rather than criticise them while claiming that other, un-named companies have much lower standards. That’s naturally rather blunted the point of the speech.

The trickiness Bryant was trying to address is of course the fact that there are many more EU workers in the UK than Labour had anticipated when it agreed to accept the terms of EU enlargement when in government.

Yet while Labour is aware that at one level the number of EU workers is unpopular with some, it’s equally clear that where major employers in the UK such as Tesco hire non-British workers, it’s not because they’re cheaper, but because they’re better prospects – harder workers, more reliable – than many of the British folk they’re competing against.

That being the case, it seems nuts to suggest that such employers should hire poorer prospects – do we really want to hamstring British businesses in that way? And of course attacking private sector employers in this way plays right into the Tories’ hands by making Labour look business-unfriendly.

When it comes to EU workers and British jobs, we’re often comparing apples with pears. At the unskilled or semi-skilled level, determined and motivated EU citizens, prepared to travel for work, are competing with those UK citizens farthest from the employment market who seem less prepared to be mobile. At the skilled level, EU workers are filling gaps in service industries that, if they weren’t filled, would lead to much higher rates being paid by consumers who, for example, have building, plumbing or electrical work carried out.

The conventional way of appealing to public distaste of ‘foreigners’ – not a fun appeal for any right-thinking politician – is to go for ‘benefits’. However, the fact is that few people actually know benefit-claiming EU folk, so there’s limited mileage in that these days.

Bryant’s approach seems to have been to go for the ‘dodgy hiring practices’ argument.  If true, there may well be mileage in such an argument.  It’s essential, though, to provide evidence. That’s why Tesco and Next were referred to. Unfortunately for Bryant, he seems to have been wrong in these cases. If he wants to continue putting this populist line then he’ll need to find evidence elsewhere, if it exists at all.

For my own part, I rather doubt there is much substance to the idea that major UK employers hire EU nationals simply to save money – although there is certainly some cheating at the margins by unscrupulous minor employers. The primary issue for UK policy-makers is, rather, a much trickier one – one they know they can’t do much about in the short or medium term.

Many of the people in the UK who are being out-competed for these jobs have no skills and often poor motivation; they’ve often been out of work for years and sometimes they’ve never been in employment at all.

Politicians often try to cover this by talking about a ‘high skills economy’ but this is a red-herring, since they know that the jobs Bryant is talking about are unskilled or, at best, semi-skilled.  It’s motivation to work in relatively low-skilled employment many unemployed Brits need in order to compete with EU workers who, Labour ensured, are here to stay.

The extent to which carrots and sticks are involved here is a matter of personal taste. With benefit cuts, the Tories seem to be going more for the stick. Labour doesn’t have much to say about it yet and no amount of tangential criticism of major UK employers will change that.  Instead, Labour needs to provide its own story of how it would deal with those UK citizens farthest from the Labour market.