It appears the heartlessness of the coalition Government towards those workers who harvest our food knows no bounds. Not content with scrapping the protection of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) for English workers the Con-Dem’s are intent on blocking moves by the Welsh Assembly to set-up a Welsh AWB to safeguard pay and conditions for more than 13,000 farm workers.
The Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly have voted to retain their AWB’s and earlier this year workers in both countries were awarded an annual pay increase.
So when the UK government formally abolished (from 1 October) the England and Wales AWB the Welsh Assembly passed the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill to give Welsh Ministers powers to establish their own board. Without one then Welsh farmworkers will join their English counterparts in being paid less than those in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Welsh Rural Affairs Minister Alun Davies said the bill, “would help ensure a prosperous future for Welsh agriculture, encourage new entrants into the industry and help retain important skills.” Support for retaining the board was said to be “vital” by the Farmers’ Union of Wales.
The Bill though has been now blocked by Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, on grounds that it was not within the Assembly’s legislative competence. It will now be left to the Supreme Court to rule in December whether it can become law or not.
By including the AWB abolition in the enterprise and regulatory bill the UK government had aimed to avoid a debate or vote on something which they themselves have calculated will result in a loss of £24 million a year for farmworkers. It was left to Labour’s Mary Creagh to use one of the opposition days to ensure there was anything approaching a proper parliamentary debate. Although 215 MPs voted to retain the board they were outvoted by the Tories and Liberal Democrats. It means that more than 90 years of protection has ended. The result is that 150,000 rural workers are going to be left to negotiate their own pay and conditions including overtime rates, holiday entitlement, flexible worker grades and sick pay schemes.
Gary (which is not his real name as he does not want to place his friends in danger of being sacked/disciplined) is a former Home Counties farmworker who had to quit the agricultural industry after he was poisoned by organophosphates. He believes “it will be almost impossible for the many farmworkers I know to negotiate with their employers, many of whom treat them terribly.
“Farmworkers are often called in during their holidays to do spraying, they are asked to do jobs which they are not properly trained to do and being off work sick is viewed with great suspicion.
“All too often the isolated nature of the work means that a falling out with an employer involves moving houses and schools. Even workers not in tied houses will accept their lot rather than upset their employers. A very good friend recently visited a solicitor after being threatened with the sack. Although it was clear his employer was acting illegally he was so scared of what might happen if he complained that he left without daring to obtain legal representation.
“I believe the National Farmers Union (NFU), this time in conjunction with the large UK food manufacturers; have once again used their considerable influence over the Government to increase the profits of their own members by removing the AWB. The NFU might find they struggle to find dedicated workers capable of operating and maintaining increasingly expensive and complex machinery and livestock systems.
“The NFU doesn’t deserve a decent caring workforce and rather than scrapping the AWB the government should be ensuring that part of the massive public subsidies that farmers get from Europe is allocated for better pay for farmworkers.”