Fears for future as wages board abolition moves closer

THE abolition of an independent body which sets minimum wages and conditions for farm workers could wreck efforts to draw more young people into the industry, a union has warned.

A bid to save the Agricultural Wages Board suffered a setback this week in the House of Commons. Farm workers, some dressed as scarecrows, descended on Westminster for a rally on Tuesday, but a Labour party bid to secure the future of the body by removing it from the bill failed in a vote.

The Conservative-LibDem Government plans to abolish the board, along with a host of other quangoes, in the Public Bodies Bill.

Supporters of the board, including the union Unite, fear that farm workers will be financially worse off if it is abolished and are continuing to campaign to keep it. Unite accused the Government of being “out of touch” with the countryside and said it could result in less people being attracted into the industry, which is already fearful of a looming recruitment crisis.

Ivan Crane, regional officer for Unite, pointed out the board’s remit was far wider than wages, covering everything from apprenticeships and training to allowances and progression through the industry. He warned wages would decline if the board is abolished, and while there were farmers who would continue to offer fair terms and wages, there would be others who would take advantage of the situation to drive them down.

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“The abolition will do nothing really to encourage the next generation,” he said.

“If lower pay is the order of the day, why would young people be attracted to it?”

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He added: “It’s a vital industry for the economy of any country.”

Wil Gibson, chief executive of Suffolk ACRE Suffolk ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England), a charity which tackles rural deprivation, said: “I think it would probably be a mistake because it does provide a framework for farmers and labourers. It does ensure a sense of equity in terms of wages, some of which tends to be lower anyway.”

He feared it could have an effect on standards, workforce relationships and skills development as well as pay for farm workers.

“Small and medium-sized farms I think draw some comfort from knowing there’s a framework,” he added.

But eastern region National Farmers’ Union spokesperson Brian Finnerty felt the national minimum wage and greater protection for workers, the board, set up in 1948, was no longer needed.

He denied there would be any big reduction in wages as a result of the abolition of the wages board.

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