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From The Socialist newspaper, 3 April 2013

Abolition of Agricultural Wages Board will result in increased rural poverty

Teresa MacKay, Rural and Agricultural Workers branch secretary - Unite

The government is set to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) for agricultural workers in England and Wales in October.

The last obstacle to abolition was removed when in March Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers in the House of Lords combined to dissolve it.

The AWB's abolition will inevitably lead to the erosion of employment terms and conditions and an increase in rural poverty.

____________________

The AWB was established in 1948 and covers around 150,000 agricultural workers. The Board is comprised of eight employer representatives, eight workers' representatives and five 'independent' members.

The bosses are represented by the National Farmers Union and workers are represented by the Unite trade union.

Agricultural workers' employment rights, including tied accommodation, are determined by the AWB, which through an Agricultural Wages Order is updated annually.

Even Margaret Thatcher, the Tory prime minister, maintained the AWB because, as Unite explains, power relations between farmworkers and farmers were recognised as being so unequal that a regulatory system was needed.

____________________

Scrapping the Board will see 259 million taken away from 150,000 agricultural workers in England and Wales and transferred into the pockets of large landowners and horticultural businesses.

This 'quango' cost 170,000 a year to run, and just 62,000 during 2011-2012. Abolition is therefore not about administration costs. It is ideological.

Scrapping the AWB will drive down already low wages of vulnerable rural workers with ever greater profits for the supermarkets. This is all about attacking workers' rights.

Lower wages, lower sickness entitlement, reduced holiday pay and reduced terms and conditions of employment will follow abolition in an industry where there is a skills shortage due to the poor pay and conditions, which is already experienced by agricultural workers.

Abolition of the Wages Councils in the 1980s saw wages in those industries move from average rates of pay to below average.

Scotland's parliament and Northern Ireland's Assembly have opted to retain their Boards and the Wales government is considering forming its own Wages Board.

This leaves English farmers, predominantly the horticulturists who depend on migrant labour to pick their produce, as the only employers in the industry no longer bound by the AWB.

Unfair process

The parliamentary process was aggressively pushed through. The consultation time was cut and buried on the website of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The questions were heavily loaded and it was not available in Welsh or any other languages, in an industry that depends on migrant workers at various times of the year.

Many others, particularly farm workers who live in rural areas, do not have access to the internet. In spite of this 61% opposed abolition 37% supported and 2% were undecided, which all counted for nothing as the government was continuing to call for abolition.

This is not the first time we have had to fight for its retention. We had the same battle in the 1980s and won.

We may have a bigger battle on our hands this time round but it will be a battle that we will fight to the end.

Vulnerability

I was a member of the Board for ten years where pay and conditions were negotiated by equal numbers of employer (NFU) and employee representatives (Unite) from the industry, with five independent members, appointed by government acting as arbitrators and mediators.

Collective bargaining is difficult in agriculture because of the very small number of employees in each farming business, who are often isolated and in a close working relationship with their employers.

One-third of all agricultural workers live in tied accommodation with their families, making them much more vulnerable.

Many very highly skilled workers handle extremely expensive machinery or look after large numbers of animals including their welfare.

There is no way that the National Minimum Wage (NMW) and other employment legislation can provide for this industry.

The Agricultural Wages Order (AWO) covers a graded pay scale providing a career structure which relates to an individual's skills, qualifications and responsibilities.

It also covers weekly hours and overtime rates, annual holiday entitlement, Agricultural Sick Pay Scheme and Flexible Worker Grades, none of which are covered by the NMW.

The grading structure offers a clear career path. If this goes it will be even more difficult to attract young people into an industry that already has an aging workforce.

At present the AWB negotiates workers' pay and conditions on an annual basis. The fear is that without the Board wages will stagnate, which is happening to many workers in other industries.

This is even more likely to happen to agricultural and horticultural workers because of their isolation, making it much more difficult to negotiate with their individual employers.

____________________

While working in the industry I found myself employed in a pack-house that was not paying the AWB rate for the job.

When challenged the employer refused to put this right and it was only resolved when he was contacted by Defra and informed that he was legally bound to pay the correct rate.

As a result many of the women workers were paid two years back pay as well as everyone benefitting by the increase in the hourly rate.

There is no doubt that if and when the AWB is abolished there will be many horticultural employers who will pay as little as they can get away with and it will be women that will be most affected by this.

____________________

ADHACs (Agricultural Dwelling House Advisory Committees) - which also will be abolished by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill - were introduced with the 1976 Rent Agricultural Act, making it very difficult for farmers to evict their workers as a result of redundancy or retirement.

The industry has an aging workforce which could mean that ADHACs would be even more important in the future.

Abolition would seriously affect the rural economy as the rates set each year within the AWO have an effect on the pay and conditions of other workers in rural areas.

This in turn would affect other rural businesses such as shops and pubs in the local villages.


There will be a lobby of David Heath, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food outside Frome library, Somerset, on Saturday 6 April from 10am. This will be one of his last surgeries before the debate in parliament.
Lib Dem MP Heath is spearheading the abolition of the AWB, despite supporting it when in opposition.

See Unite Rural Workers on Facebook for more events.

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