UK: Unite set to target rural Lib Dem MPs in bid to halt scrapping of Agricultural Wages Board

The House of Lords voted in favour of scrapping the AWB this week

The House of Lords voted in favour of scrapping the AWB this week - Credit: PA

Union leaders are set to lobby Liberal Democrat MPs representing rural seats with a large number of agricultural workers, in their bid to save the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB).

Unite believes that Lib Dem MPs hold the key to halting the Government’s plans to scrap the AWB.

On Wednesday, peers in the House of Lords voted by 192 to 163, Government majority 29, against a Labour plan to save the Agricultural Wages Board as they debated the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.

The board sets minimum rates of pay and conditions for farm workers and Lord Younger said the Government’s abolition of it would simplify employment laws for around 40,000 farm business in England and Wales.

Unite is set to mount an intensive lobbying campaign in the run-up to the crucial Commons vote on the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform bill.

Unite national officer for agriculture Julia Long said: “Liberal Democrat MPs in rural areas with small majorities should listen to their agricultural worker constituents.

“The calls for the AWB’s demise are coming from agri-business and the supermarkets intent on boosting profits, while driving down the pay of agricultural workers to poverty levels.

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“We are mobilising parliamentary support to halt the AWB’s abolition which has set agricultural workers’ pay since the second world war.”

Labour’s amendment in the House of Lords to oppose the abolition was co-sponsored by Liberal Democrat Lord Greaves, Tory Baroness Trumpington and the Bishop of Hereford this week.

Lord Whitty said the Government estimated the result of the abolition would be a cut of £240million in wages in the agriculture sector and said the plan was “dangerous”.

He said the agricultural industry was unique because of the small number of people employed by most farms and the seasonal nature of the work.

“The minister claims this is a great removal of burdens on small businesses, but actually the operation of the board has in many cases been of great benefit to small farmers,” he said.

And he said a significant number of small farmers said that because they knew what they had to pay their staff they did not “have to go into an embarrassing and detailed negotiations with their two or three employees”.

He told peers: “A wage cut for workers will almost certainly end up by being a benefit to the supermarkets. The supermarket buyers once they hear that the wages board and the minimum rates have been abolished will go back to their farmers and their suppliers and say ‘we want a cut in the prices that we are giving’.

“The money will not come out of the farm workers and into the pockets of farmers, it will go out of the rural community entirely into the pockets of the supermarkets.”

The Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Rev Anthony Priddis, said it was “vital” to keep the board

“When other wages councils were abolished in the 1980s, the Government chose to keep the Agriculture Wages Board on the grounds that it required some central oversight to prevent wages being driven down unacceptably,” he said.

“In order to consolidate and build upon the progress achieved in terms and conditions during the last 30 years we need to retain and further develop and update the Agriculture Wages Board not abolish it.”

But Tory Lord Cavendish of Furness said he could not see “any justification whatsoever” for retaining the board which was “obsolete and irrelevant”.

He said proponents of keeping the board came close to suggesting farmers were “so primitive” that they alone needed help setting wages.

Lord Younger said as a result of farms expanding in areas such as bed and breakfast businesses, at present many workers were partly employed under the agriculture board and partly under normal minimum wage legislation.

He said market conditions suggested there would be “a sustained demand for agricultural workers” as there was a shortage of people with the right skills and the workforce was ageing.

As a result “market drivers” would ensure that wages remained competitive, he said.

He told peers: “The Government firmly believes that these amendments will benefit the agricultural industry by removing regulatory burdens from farm businesses allowing the industry to modernise and compete for labour on an equal basis with all other employers while ensuring that agriculture workers have the same level of protection as other workers.

“All of this will encourage the development of a sustainable industry for the future.”

And he said there was “no evidence at all” that supermarkets would push for lower wages.

Further report stage consideration of the Bill was adjourned until next week.