UK: Protesters to descend on DEFRA in London to protest at the planned abolition of Agricultural Wages Board

Angry farm workers are set to descend on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in Smith Square, London, tomorrow (Friday) to protest at the planned abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) in England and Wales.

The Unite union said the board was “the last bulwark against 150,000 people working on the land sliding into poverty”.

Protesters are set to wear badger masks and a Mr Badger suit – to draw attention to the fact that the consultation on the future of the AWB in England and Wales ends on November 12 – four weeks after it was announced.

Unite national officer, Julia Long said: “The ‘badger’ protest makes a serious point – if the government could stop the cull of the badger population very abruptly – they could easily do the same for the AWB.”

Last week, Unite called on David Heath, the Minister of State at DEFRA, to extend the consultation on the future of the AWB to at least 12 weeks, so that interested bodies, particularly small organisations, have enough time to formulate their arguments for the retention of the AWB.

Ms Long said: “The Government is pushing this through with indecent haste; no doubt, influenced by the vested interests of the big employers that want to drive wages down to poverty levels.

“There is no way that those living in rural communities could engage in a digital only consultation in the four week time span – broadband access is patchy in many parts of the countryside.

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“Many will not be aware that the consultation is happening at all, as there has been no attempt to engage with ‘hard to reach’ communities.

“A total of 154,000 workers rely on the AWB to maintain some sort of income on which to bring up their families – the abolition of the AWB will see �140 million a year ‘lifted’ from low-paid workers and be ‘kept’ by the employers, who will also pocket millions more in holiday, overtime and sickness pay that they won’t have to fork out.

“We well know that many rural communities are economically and socially fragile. And as wages collapse, we are deeply concerned that employers will see children and the under-18s on even lower National Minimum Wage rates as an attractive proposition for the money-obsessed supply chain.

“On Friday, members of the AWB board have a real opportunity to stand and be counted to maintain a viable economic framework in England and Wales’ rural areas. They should not be bounced into throwing the countryside into a downward spiral of poverty and hopelessness.”

 Unite says that, while the Westminster government wants to abolish the AWB in England and Wales, the devolved governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland were keeping their AWBs and there was a commitment by the Welsh Government to retain its AWB.

Unite says it is not against the modernisation of the AWB,  but says many rural communities are on a knife edge where low wages are the norm – and to afford some protection against rural poverty was the reason that the AWB,  which has it origins in the First World War, came into being in the first place.