From the current edition of Landworker magazine.
A hearing at the UK Supreme Court starting on 17 February will decide whether the Welsh Assembly can establish a dedicated Welsh Agricultural Wages Board. (AWB)
Last year, after the UK government formally abolished the England and Wales AWB, assembly members passed the agricultural sector (Wales) Bill giving Welsh Ministers powers to establish their own board.
In addition to Unite, the Farmers’ Union of Wales, and Wales Young Farmers endorsed the proposal as they recognised the Board is the most effective and fair method of determining wages and conditions within the agricultural industry.
The attorney general, Dominic Grieve, referred the bill as he argued that the law was outside the Assembly’s legislative competence as rather than the issue being about agriculture it concerned employment issues that had not been devolved to Cardiff. The Supreme Court, which rules on all matters relating to devolution in the UK, will now decide.
Unite criticised Grieve’s decision with Wales regional secretary Andy Richards saying “at a time when we are seeing devolution making a direct difference to our members, it’s disappointing that the UK government has obstructed the Welsh Assembly’s plans.
Wales’ case is strengthened by Scotland and Northern Ireland both having AWBs, thus enabling workers in both countries to continue to enjoy an annual pay increase and retain minimum standards for such as overtime rates, holiday entitlement and skills development. Their English counterparts are worse off as only the national minimum wage covers them.
Just as at Westminster, the fight in the Welsh Assembly to retain the AWB in Wales has been led by the Labour Party. Mick Antoniw, who was elected in Pontypridd in 2011, previously represented agricultural trade unionists on personal injury cases when he was a solicitor with Thompsons solicitors.
At the start of last year he wrote a detailed report on why the AWB should be retained, and in October 2013 he led a debate on the subject in the Assembly. As an internationalist he is disappointed at being unable to help English workers retain the AWB. He has little hope that the cold-hearted Tories and Liberal Democrat MPs at Westminster will see “sense” and reverse their attack on English agricultural workers.
In Wales, Liberal Democrat Welsh Assembly Members are in favour of retaining the AWB. Not so the Tories, whose spokesperson, Antoinette Sandbach, has foolishly argued that scrapping the AWB in England could lead to such higher wages that Welsh workers will be racing over the border to take up employment!
Mick Antoniw is passionate in his defence of the AWB, saying, “It sets wage levels and establishes minimum terms and conditions for overtime, night premiums, accommodation deductions, sick pay and training and skills. Rural poverty is a major problem and the AWB prevents a race to the bottom by employers.
“I am confident of victory in the Supreme Court. The AWB has always been under the agriculture portfolio because it is crucial to the importance of the future wellbeing of the industry. It is not an employment terms matter. Agriculture is a fully devolved matter - how can you possibly be responsible for its future without considering the role and well being of those who work in it?”
According to the Unite Wales Secretary Andy Richards the fight by the Welsh Assembly to retain the AWB in Wales “is extremely welcome and at a time when we are seeing devolution making a direct difference to our members it is disappointing that the UK Government has taken this issue to the Supreme Court.”