Saturday, 1 December 2012

Scrapping agricultural wages board adds to rural destruction

They’ve decimated bus services, slashed funds for health, safety, youth and advice projects, damaged laws to protect animals and the environment, failed to support local Post Offices and advanced no strategy to create jobs for young people or to tackle the chronic shortage of affordable housing. 
Now the Coalition Government are set to impose further damage on rural communities by abolishing the England and Wales Agricultural Wages Board, on which equal numbers of employers and Unite reps sit along with five members appointed by the Farming Minister to fix wages and conditions. For most of the last century this has ensured that farm workers have received annual pay rises, recognition for advancing their skills, overtime pay, holidays and protection in their tied homes. 
Scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), a move not even Margaret Thatcher was prepared to sanction when she was in Government in the 1980s, demonstrates the callous indifference of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats towards farm and horticultural workers, who without someone to represent them can expect to see their pay and conditions eroded in future years. 
Wages councils were founded in 1909 by a radical Liberal government who paid for the subsequent improvement in low paid, vulnerable workers wages by levying unprecedented taxes on the wealthy in its People’s Budget. It was a move by the Liberals towards a more caring society funded by increased government expenditure. Just as importantly the Budget was an economic success with Chancellor Lloyd George raising a surplus of £5,607,000 in 1910-11 and £6,545,000 in 1911-12. 
It seems however that the current lot of Liberal Democrats know little about their most illustrious period as the man given the task of abolishing the AWB is David Heath, Lib Dem MP for Somerton and Frome. He was appointed as Farming Minister on September 4, replacing Jim Paice, who in the summer had revealed his ignorance about his job by being unable to respond to a simple question as to the price of a pint of milk.
Any hopes however that the new man in charge would quickly learn to speak with more authority have, so far, not been realised. At the end of October, Heath said the AWB abolition would “create almost 1,000 new jobs.” That’s not the case according to his own department, as the Defra impact assessment on abolition states: “There may also be increased employment of 0-930 workers which could benefit local economies.” 
Not that the latter point should also be taken literally as the assessment calculates that once the AWB is kicked into touch farmworkers are going to annually lose a total of £24 million. This will certainly suck money out of rural areas as there is no way - not even if 930 new jobs are created - that the total wages paid will make up for such a vast sum. To do so each new worker would need to be paid £25,806.45 annually, a figure far greater than those earned under the AWB. 
Heath claimed that his sudden announcement of a four-week consultation period on the AWB’s future - that ended on November 12 -  was necessary “to modernise the agricultural labour market.” Heath’s views were particularly welcomed by the Horticultural Trades Association, whose members are under pressure from the big supermarkets to reduce their prices, who following the introduction of the negotiated increases for 2012, said: “it was concerned we may have to face these unnecessary cost increases next year.” 
The employers organisation, the National Farmers Union has also backed the proposed changes even though in 2011 ‘Total Income for Farming’ leaped by £1.126bn or 25% in real terms and the sector continues to receive 62% of its income from taxpayers’ money that could be used to improve the pay of the workers that many farmers rely on.
It’s not as if the 154,000 farm and horticultural workers in England and Wales covered by the AWB are earning a fortune. The six grades range from £6.21 an hour, just 2p above the national minimum wage, up to £9.40 for farm management. 
Importantly though Unite has also been able to persuade the board into guaranteeing farm workers get decent holidays and in 2007 these were moved upwards from 23 to 28 days a year. Negotiated overtime rates at time-and-a-half are an essential component of workers’ wages and there are minimum rates for flexible workers. Employers who provide workers with a house can only charge a maximum of £1.50 a week and Unite has also persuaded the AWB to improve sick pay and bereavement leave. Shepherds have an income for each dog they are required to keep. With the abolition of the AWB new farm and horticultural workers can expect to find they have lost many of these benefits, whilst those already working in these sectors can expect to see them steadily eroded over time. 
Like David Heath, Unite wants to ‘modernise the agricultural labour market’ and the union has fought hard to get training included in farm and horticultural workers employment contracts. The AWB guarantees training for initial grade 1 workers after they have worked continuously worked for the same employer for 30 weeks. This means new entrants gain necessary qualifications to move into grade 2 for standard workers, thus increasing their pay rates from £6.21 to £6.96 an hour.
43% of workers covered under the AWB are classified as standard workers. With three quarters of all workers at grades 2-6 then the Defra claim, in support of abolition, that they “are well protected by national minimum wage legislation” is not backed by the facts as this pays considerably less than the amounts currently earned by over 112,000 workers. 
Neither does the national minimum wage legislation ensure workers get the current overtime or sick pay rates. There is no entitlement to paid time to train, rules on paid breaks are worse and there is no statutory provision for additional payments to be made for being on call. No wonder therefore that when Heath announced he was rushing forward his consultation that Guardian journalist Polly Tonybee said: “this withering assault on farm workers’ wages is a race to the bottom.”
A view echoed by the Labour Party, who since it became known that the Lib Dems were forgetting that they had not included the AWB abolition in their 2010 election manifesto, or the subsequent coalition agreement, has consistently opposed a piece of legislation that will add to the ongoing destruction of rural economies. 
In 2011 Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister Gareth Thomas moved an amendment to block the abolition of the AWB under the Public Bodies Act. There was hope that the Liberal Democrats could be persuaded to back Labour.   Even today, Andrew George, the St Ives MP who was the Lib Dems shadow minister for food and rural affairs between 2002 and 2005, is in favour of retaining the legislation, although it would be under the umbrella of another body such as the Low Pay Commission. 
When it was clear that the junior coalition party backed abolition, Mary Creagh MP, shadow environment secretary, launched the “Back the Apple” campaign to ensure “fruit pickers and farm workers get a fair deal.”  Labour has raised the issue of the AWB at their party conferences and denounced the Tories and Lib Dems in Parliament. 
Today, Labour remains committed to retaining the AWB with Huw-Irranca Davies, the shadow minister for food and farming telling Landworker “the hand that picks the apple may no longer be able to afford it. 
Rural areas such as the East Anglian coast, Cumbria, parts of Wales and rural areas of the south coast are among the most deprived in the country. Rather than supporting the rural poor this Tory-led government is making the lives of some of the hardest workers in the nation more difficult.”
But surely with all the other wages council gone then it’s time to scrap the AWB? 
“In a report for the Low Pay Commission in December 2011, Incomes Data Services argued: ‘the agricultural sector is distinct from other sectors in that it is comprised of small employment units but with the additional feature of seasonal or casual workers.’
“The AWB may indeed be an anomaly now all the other wage councils are gone, but the agricultural sector is so different from other sectors of our economy that it is still needed. The majority of the industry is made up of small farmers, who do not have the time, the expertise or, the funds to negotiate with their workers time and time again in what is an increasingly high pressure working environment.
“The standards of pay and conditions set by the AWB enable farmers to focus on the running of their farms and on producing the products that we all need and enjoy. In abolishing the AWB, the Government is not freeing farms from overbearing bureaucracy. It is instead making their lives more difficult and creating a more bureaucratic industry. 
“This is the last thing that small farmers need. Instead of having to deal only with the AWB, in the future farmers will need to work with a myriad of different organisations, each one governing a different area of employment regulation and each, in turn, exposing every small farm business to new and different liabilities and complexities.” 
Davies echoed many people’s fears that the scrapping of the AWB will make it more difficult to attract young people into farming and horticulture, without which the long term prospects for either sector are certainly not healthy. 
All of which means that sometimes fact really is funnier than fiction as here we have a piece of legislation that will reduce workers wages and conditions, remove spending from rural communities, can promise no new jobs and threatens to leave gaping holes in the UK’s ability to feed itself. Welcome to the crazy economic world of the coalition Government. 

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