Thursday, 18 July 2013

English workers set to lose out

Agricultural workers in England face being paid less than those in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales after a heartless government formally abolished the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) for England and Wales on June 25. The move leaves thousands of workers without union representation over wages and conditions and with no way of knowing when they might next receive a pay increase. 

Fellow workers in Scotland and Northern Ireland will certainly be getting paid more after October 1st after the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) proposed to increase by 13 pence per hour to £6.99 the pay of agricultural workers employed by the same employer for more than 26 weeks. Workers with less time will see their basic wage increase by 10p to £6.32.

Scotland has had its own AWB since 1949. Its parliament, like the Northern Ireland Assembly, has opted to retain the board. Wages under the AWB for Northern Ireland were increased on 6 April, and now start at £6.35 an hour and run up to £8.99 an hour for farm management. 

“It’s good news for Scots agricultural workers and those in Northern Ireland and the pay increase is one Unite wanted to see replicated in England and Wales but the board would not even discuss such an idea,” said Julia Long, Unite national officer for rural workers. The current agricultural wages order for England and Wales runs until 30 September.  

By which time emergency plans by the Welsh Assembly Government to retain the functions of the AWB in Wales will have been introduced. The Assembly ran a consultation from May 1 to June 26 on whether there should be a stand-alone body in Wales similar to those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Labour’s Alun Davies, the minister for natural resources and food, expressed concern that 13,000 low paid agricultural workers in Wales could be badly hit. 

Do nothing, legislate to maintain the functions of the AWB in Wales and create a non-statutory advisory board were the three options considered under the consultation, following which Mr Davies said: “After careful consideration I have decided to bring forward an Assembly Bill on July 8 to preserve the Agricultural Wages Order in Wales after October 2013.” (*) 

Davies accused the government of  “abolishing the AWB through the Enterprise and Regulatory Bill in order to deliberately circumvent Public Bodies Act provisions that act as the mechanism for dealing with the UK Government’s proposals to abolish public bodies for England and Wales. This is a tactic to avoid the requirement for Assembly consent for the proposed action.” 

The political sleight-of-hand by which the Welsh Assembly was excluded from the decision to abolish the AWB in England and Wales was just the latest in a sorry tale of coalition surrenders to the employers, supermarkets and the large horticultural companies of East Anglia. Abolition of the wages councils in the 1980s saw wages in those industries drop and there is little to suggest that won’t prove the case this time. 

Claims by Lib Dem farming minister David Heath MP that agricultural workers will be protected by national minimum wage (NMW) regulations also ring hollow. That’s because - unlike under the AWB – the NMW regulations don’t cover overtime rates, annual holiday entitlement, sick pay scheme and flexible worker grades – all of which are standard under the AWB and go some way towards attracting young people into an industry with an ageing workforce. 

The AWB was even abolished without a debate or a vote on April 16 and it wasn’t until Labour’s Mary Creagh used one of its opposition days – allocated in the Commons for the discussion of subjects chosen by the opposition – that there was anything approaching a proper Parliamentary debate in which 283 MPs voted to retain plans to abolish the AWB against 215 who wanted them scrapped.

Of course, with the Liberal Democrats almost certain to suffer heavily at the next election and the Tories in disarray over Europe, the hope is that Labour will win a majority in 2015. Unite is due to meet shortly with shadow ministers to see how farm workers can be protected under a future Labour government. 

In the interim Unite is continuing to take legal advice on whether a case can be made to the European Court of Human Rights because of the human rights issues at stake. A ‘wages watch’ unit to monitor attacks on wages and accommodation is being established to build the case for restoration of the AWB as soon as possible. 

“It is a very sad that the AWB in England and Wales has been scrapped. Hopefully it will remain in Wales and then we can concentrate on having it restored in England,” said Julia Long. 

* The Welsh Assembly agreed and legislation has now been passed in the Assembly. However the bill will not become law until the Queen has given Royal Assent. The Assembly must first wait to see if the UK government decides to take the case to the Supreme Court where if the legislation was seen as an agricultural measure then it would fall within the Assembly’s competence. If however it was viewed as employment legislation it could be struck down as being outside the Assembly’s powers. 

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