UK: Abolition of Agricultural Wages Board slammed by union as “assault on working people”

Union leaders have accused the Government of a “cowardly” attack on working people with the news that the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) is to be scrapped in 2013.

The majority of responses to the Government’s consultation on the future of the AWB were in favour of retention, Unite argues. In its own consultation submission, the union claimed supermarkets and the growers who supply them were behind moves to abolish the AWB in order to cut labour costs.

But farmers’ leaders have welcomed the move, and Farming Minister David Heath said the AWB set-up was “outdated and bureaucratic”. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) described the plans, included in a Bill in Parliament this week, as “right and proper” and claimed they would benefit agriculture.

Unite accused the Government of putting the interests of big business over those of people and communities. The union is angry that the Government has refused to allow access to the consultation responses, despite repeated calls for them to do so.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “If the case for scrapping the Board, which has served generations of rural workers and their communities, is so compelling, then the Government should publish the evidence.

“Their reluctance to do so suggests that this is another shameful assault on workers for which there is no evidence base.

“This is just one more disgraceful act by a Government that has no economic plan for our nation other than to strip back workers’ rights. This will ill-serve our rural communities driving already low wages down further still for vulnerable rural workers and swelling even more the profits of the big supermarkets.

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“Scrapping the Board will save the government a paltry �50,000 per year yet it will see millions of pounds that ought to be workers’ wages transfer to the wealthy retailers and big employers. Over the border in Scotland, rural workers will still have their board to protect them. Why does this government not similarly value the rural workers of England and Wales?

“David Heath, the Liberal Democrat minister who is presiding over this shameful wealth transfer, and who once stood up to defend the AWB, would do well to consider his future. His seat is a marginal one and agricultural workers are unlikely to forget either his hypocrisy or this malign act any time soon.”

But the NFU has consistently called for the abolition of the AWB, arguing it has become “increasingly obsolete, generating an additional administrative burden and forcing a one-size-fits-all approach on the industry”.

NFU Deputy President Meurig Raymond said: “We are delighted with the decision to abolish the outdated AWB, and would like to praise the Minister for acting decisively on a consultation that generated passionate responses from all sides of the argument.

“The AWB, while appropriate in the era it was established, has now been superseded by modern-day developments such as the national minimum wage, leaving agriculture totally out of step with the rest of the UK workforce. This makes the decision to abolish it right and proper, and will bring agriculture alongside other modern-day industries.

“While we understand the changes need parliamentary approval, we welcome the intention to see the agricultural minimum wages regime abolished from October 2013, therefore ruling out a further round of wage negotiations. However, this does mean that members should comply with the order until that time, to ensure they continue to operate within the law.

“For the NFU, the next phase of work begins. We have committed to provide information and guidance to the industry to support wage negotiations between individual businesses and their workers in the future. We’ll be working with our members and stakeholders in the new year to progress this pledge.”

Mr Heath said: “Scrapping these outdated and bureaucratic rules will significantly reduce burdens to farmers while keeping workers extremely well protected.

“I’m convinced it’s the right move to help agriculture take advantage of the huge opportunities to prosper in coming years.”

The Agricultural Wages Board, which the union argues protects wages for over 140,000 agricultural workers in England and Wales, was established early in the last century to ensure that rural workers could earn a near living wage and had some measure of housing security.

In October 2012, the Government announced plans to abolish the board in England and Wales. It came under fire from union leaders after deciding on a consultation period of four weeks, instead of the usual 12.