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Wages boards have improved lot of vulnerable rural workers

WESTMINSTER is to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) for England and Wales from October 1.

In a recent letter to the UK's biggest union, Unite, Farming Minister David Heath said abolishing the schedule of agricultural minimum pay rates was "in the best interests of all those within the industry".

The minister wrote: "The abolition of the AWB will mean there is a single employment regime across all sectors of the economy, which will improve transparency for both employers and workers.

"It will enable farm businesses to modernise, become more flexible and compete for labour on an equal footing with other local employers. This will encourage investment in the industry and increase job opportunities, which will help secure the long-term prosperity of the sector."

Not surprisingly, that piece of Tory dogma has been opposed by Unite, whose general secretary Len McCluskey said: "This is just one more disgraceful act by a Government that has no economic plan for our nation other than to strip back workers' rights. This will ill serve our rural communities, driving already low wages down further still for vulnerable rural workers and swelling even more the profits of big supermarkets."

Mr McCluskey has the support of the Welsh Assembly, which has also reacted angrily to the axing of the AWB and hinted it may set up a Wales-only body to protect farm workers' pay.

The legislation to scrap the AWB was originally included in the Public Bodies Bill which would have forced Westminster to take the Welsh view into account when deciding its future, as agriculture is a devolved issue – but by adding the legislation to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, Defra worked around this by arguing that employment was not a devolved issue.

By contrast, despite opposition from NFU Scotland, the Scottish Government, in line with the Northern Ireland Assembly, has decided to retain its AWB (the Scottish AWB).

With the advent of the national minimum wage, I am not so sure of the continuing need for the SAWB, but neither am I convinced of any urgent necessity to scrap it. Many of my grandfather's generation treated most of their farm workers badly. They worked long, hard hours for such meagre wages their families were malnourished, with cases of rickets common among children.

Before the Second World War and well into the 1960s, many often lived in appalling, cramped and damp, tired accommodation that lacked basic sanitation. The post-war boom in council house building forced farmers to modernise their farm cottages to prevent good workers being lured away from the land by better urban housing and jobs.

With the advent of the SAWB, wages and conditions gradually improved, and hours were reduced, but my some of my father's generation still had little respect for their employees – commonly referring to them disdainfully as "farm-servants".

My father was a hard taskmaster and few stayed more than a year with him. Indeed, I once heard a neighbour suggest to him he should fit revolving doors to his workers' cottages.

The haughty attitude of my father and his ilk is a thing of the past and those who can still afford staff often work side by side with them, something that has led to the creation of a very loyal and flexible workforce.

While the SAWB annually reviews terms and conditions, and sets minimum wage rates for the various categories, the main driver behind the improved fortunes of most has been the competitive nature of the modern labour market.

Today's farming industry is a hi-tech one that requires highly trained and skilled workers – but it is forced to compete with other industries for them.

Nowadays, those in charge of large dairy herds can command salaries in excess of £40,000, while a good tractor man will be expected to earn close on £30,000. You can't afford to let untrained workers drive a combine harvester worth £250,000 or a tractor and its attached equipment with a price tag in excess of £100,000.

While those with the right skills can command good wages, unskilled workers such as those in seasonal jobs picking fruit or harvesting vegetables, and school leavers at the start of their careers in farming, are in a weaker bargaining position. On the surface, that's where the national minimum wage acts as a safety net and appears to make AWBs obsolete.

Despite that argument for abolition, I am inclined to agree with the Scottish Government's decision to retain the SAWB. After all, why go and fix something that isn't broken?

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Agriculture

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