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There is perhaps nothing more ancient, more human, more necessary to society than working on the land. And it would seem there is nothing more undervalued, thanks to the latest move by this arrogant, land-owning Coalition government.

On April 16 the government eventually got its wish and abolished the agricultural wages board (AWB) after a three-year fight by Unite’s farm workers to retain it.

Over 60 years of pay protection for 150,000 rural workers in England and Wales was abolished, shamefully, without even a proper parliamentary debate. Unite called it ‘a national disgrace.’

AWB abolition was bunged into the much wider enterprise and regulatory reform bill. When the issue returned to the Commons it was not even debated and forced through by guillotine without a vote.

Unite national officer Julia Long commented, “It’s a national disgrace and the capitulation of MPs to the interests of the big employers and the supermarkets, who want to ruthlessly drive down costs. The spectre of poverty embracing the countryside is now very real.”

For a long time many farm owners wanted rid of the AWB, deeming it an expensive inconvenience and even calling it an anachronism. The wages board set annual pay rates for agricultural workers ranging from entry grade 1 to farm manager grade 6. Hourly rates are from grade 1 at £6.21 – 2p an hour above the national minimum wage, to highly qualified and experienced farm managers earning £9.40 an hour.

It’s quite clear that agriculture, the UK’s most dangerous industry, with its long and often difficult hours, is not for the faint- hearted. The average age for an agricultural worker is 55 – and young people are simply not flocking to work on the land.

Abolishing the AWB will almost certainly push wages down to the national minimum. Many workplaces are small concerns. It would take an awful lot of confidence to negotiate and a sympathetic boss to agree to an individual’s annual pay

rise. Years of training and invaluable experience, together with the immense responsibilities often involved could count for nothing as employers decide not to pay workers any increase – or worse to cut their wages right down.

There are difficulties in making farming profitable – health crises, blight, floods, drought – but with the AWB land workers always had protection. Apart from pay the agreement covered sick pay, hours, holidays and much more – including housing.

Many farm workers rent ‘tied’

accommodation on the farm they work. Farm worker and chair of Unite’s agricultural worker, Steve Leniec explains.

“The AWB going will seriously affect those living in tied accommodation and even temporary homes will face the threat of higher housing charges as the protection in the Order is eroded. Once abolished we’ll be in the hands of local authority bureaucrats with no knowledge of farming. This could well encourage some employers to play the system and release tied houses for private rent.”

Challenge Unite believes the demise of the AWB could now prompt a challenge to the European court of human rights, as thousands of agricultural workers face a threat to their homes.

It’s estimated there are about 60,000 agricultural workers and managers in accommodation provided by their employer. They could face losing their homes after October 1, if they left their current employment and had to negotiate a new contract.

So why abolish a system that has been in place and highly effective for almost a century? No prizes for guessing who will benefit. Employers’ group, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) says the AWB is a relic from a bygone age and has no place on a modern farm.

“The NFU uses the line it wants to be treated like any other industry in the 21st

15 uniteWORKS May/June 2013

century,” says Steve. “What other industry enjoys an annual subsidy of £34bn and an opt-out from the working time directive? Now on top of that they want the tax payer to subsidise their wages bills by paying in work benefits to workers paid poverty wages.”

Julia Long points to a powerful lobby with a vested interest in AWB abolition. She cites the recent Sunday Times Rich List, revealing massive personal wealth is alive and doing very well in the industry.

Luxuriating “Among those luxuriating in extreme largesse are UK food manufacturers, including Morrisons, Sainsburys and Two Sisters,” says Julia. “Indeed, in at number 80 is Lord Vestey, owner of Stowell Park, a business that lobbied in favour of AWB abolition.

“These companies have profited

handsomely from the tightening grip of retail on our food industry. For them, the AWB stood in the way of ever deeper profits.

“Workers in supermarkets and food processing rarely attract a living wage, and indeed many will be in those 60 per cent of workers, dependent on benefits to get by.”

Unite has vowed to fight to restore the AWB.

Unite has already made a submission to the parliamentary joint committee on human rights, pointing out, “The destruction of the AWB without replacement by an alternative collective bargaining body for the agricultural industry will be in plain breach of the UK’s international obligations.”

As for a political answer, Steve says, “Our friends in the Labour party have been with us all the way, both in Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Now we need a commitment from the next Labour government to reintroduce statutory national collective bargaining for farm workers as a priority when it is back in power.”

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