UK: Fears for farmworkers as Agricultural Wages Board abolished

A farmer makes the most of the warm weather as he spreads hay in a field near Market Bosworth, Warwi

A farmer makes the most of the warm weather as he spreads hay in a field near Market Bosworth, Warwickshire. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Sunday June 30, 2013. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Farm workers are being urged to know their rights following the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) on Tuesday.

Union officials at Unite branded the axing of the board, which set minimum pay rates for farm workers “vindictive”, but farmers’ leaders at the National Farmers’ Union said the board, established about a century ago, was outdated.

Farm workers, many of whom were on £6.21 an hour, will be entitled to the national minimum wage which rose to £6.31 this week, but new joiners may find themselves out of pocket on overtime, which under the AWB was time and a half for those working more than 39 hours a week. Potential loss of security of tenure on accommodation is also causing concern among union officials.

Workers on existing contracts will see their current pay and conditions remain the same, unless they agree to changes, says Unite. But it warned of potentially “fraught” pay negotiations with employers for the first time. It has set up a Wages Watch to monitor any abuses of pay and employment conditions.

Although the government’s abolition of the AWB took effect this week in England, the position in Wales is still under discussion, while Scotland and Northern Ireland retain their own boards.

The AWB set minimum pay and conditions for about 140,000 farm workers. Unite has now issued its own guidance leaflet on pay and conditions following the AWB’s abolition.

Unite points out that a worker has a right to a written contract giving details of pay and other employment terms, and should get advice if they have not been provided with one by their employer.

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Unite national officer for agricultural workers Julia Long said: “Our members in low paid rural industries are facing a vindictive assault on their pay and conditions from a multi-million pound industry backed by a coalition government of millionaires.”

The NFU, which has created an employer information pack for members, said it was keen to ensure as many farmers as possible were aware of the changes.

NFU chief economist Phil Bicknell said: “Farm employers will be free to engage new workers on terms and conditions that comply with wider employment legislation, rather than being bound by what some would view as a rigid framework imposed by the old agricultural wages legislation.”