Farm workers say abolition of wages board could see employers cut pay and raise costs


London Letter: Agricultural workers in England and Wales fear for the future of their wages board

Margaret Thatcher hated bodies that set pay for trades. In her time she abolished the Coffin, Furniture and Cerement-Making Wages Council and the Ostrich and Fancy Feather Wages Council.

However, even Thatcher stopped short of getting rid of the Agricultural Wages Board, which has regulated pay and conditions for farm workers since the 1920s following a bitter strike in Norfolk.

Now, however, the coalition is getting ready to do so, following a four-week consultation that prompted protests by farm workers outside the House of Commons this week.

Defending the plan, minister of state for agriculture David Heath says abolition would be “an important step” towards harmonising employment law and removing regulation.

The board is no longer necessary, ministers say, because most workers earn more than the national minimum wage – although where they do, it is often a matter of pence an hour, not more.

Besides pay, the board has other functions, being involved in regulating rights to tied-cottages, holidays and overtime, along with payments for workers who use their own sheep-dogs.

Since 1948, when the system was overhauled during Clement Attlee’s Labour administration, the board has an equal number of employers and employees, along with four independent members and an independent chair.

Abolition advice

The nine-strong farming regulation task force recommended abolition in May 2011, although Unite points out that no workers sat on it, but it did include five representatives of supermarkets and suppliers.

Tractor driver Steve Leniec, who works on an Oxfordshire farm, warns that the extinction of the board would drive 150,000 workers into poverty.

“Without the AWB to negotiate pay and fair housing, wages will fall to the lowest legal wage possible. Bad employers will see this as the opportunity to cut pay and raise housing costs,” he says.

The National Farmers Union supports abolition, although its Welsh equivalent and the young farmers’ body in Wales have spoken out against it.

“Small farmers, who make up the majority of the industry, do not have the time, the expertise or, frankly, the

funds to negotiate with their workers time and time again

in what is an increasingly pressurised working environment,” says Labour MP Jamie Reed.

Instead of replacing bureaucracy, it will create more, he warns, leaving farmers to deal with a “myriad of different organisations, each one governing a different area of employment regulation”.

Housing is as much of an issue as wages, since nearly a third of farm workers in England and Wales live in tied- cottages, with Reed warning that people who have lived for “generations in secure homes will face possible eviction”.

Such fears are rejected as scaremongering by the farm minister, who insists that statutory protections for tenants will continue to apply while farmers will be able to apply to a local authority to rehouse a tenant if space is needed for a new worker.

‘Feudal’ situation

The promises, however, cut little ice with Unite, which says that farm workers live in a world where employers are in “positions of social control” and where “the interwoven social and employment fabric of their lives is feudal”.

The Country Land and Business Association says the system is outdated and “no longer relevant to the structure of modern-day agriculture”.

National legislation now governs the minimum wage, working times and holidays, association’s president, Harry Cottrell, says. “It has been set apart as a special case for too long.”

Given changes in agriculture, it can be difficult sometimes, say employers, to define what exactly is agricultural work.

Opponents argue that conditions for seasonal workers – 40 per cent of the total employed in England and 56 per cent in Wales – will deteriorate if the government goes ahead.

“Even now that we have the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, we still see egregious examples of exploitation in the agricultural industry and others around the country,” Reed says. “How much easier are we about to make it for future incidents to occur?”

Six pay grades

The Agricultural Wages Board lays down six pay grades for farm workers, depending on skills, along with a separate rate for workers of compulsory school age for which there is no equivalent under the national minimum wage.

Following its own inquiries, the independent Low Pay Commission has highlighted possible dangers, saying farm workers could end up being paid a piece-rate for a job that would end up being lower than the national minimum.

The debate about the board’s future highlights interesting issues about devolution, since the changes, if made, would not apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland.

In Wales, however, powers over agriculture have been devolved to Cardiff but those over wages have not, although Cardiff insists for now that Westminster cannot go ahead unless it agrees.