Wages Board works, why scrap it?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010
5:57 PM

A tried and tested mechanism for setting workers’ pay and conditions for almost 90 years should not be scrapped to score a political point, said Unite’s national officer Ian Waddell.

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The Agricultural Wages Board, which dates from 1924, was set up in the aftermath of the bitter 1923 Norfolk farmworkers’ strike.

“It has provided for settled, harmonious relations for nearly 87 years. It has removed conflict from the farming workplace,” he said.

It was no surprise when Defra’s secretary Caroline Spelman on July 22 said that the AWB would be scrapped. It was in the Conservatives’ election manifesto and the National Farmers’ Union has had the board in its sights since the national minimum wage became a reality more than a dozen years ago.

Mr Waddell said that the proposed abolition has exposed divisions in farming and with prime minister David Cameron’s coalition partners.

Two years ago, Unite fought successfully to save the Scottish AWB. Soon, there might be a wages board north of the border and in Northern Ireland, but not in England and Wales.

But Mr Waddell, who met union and branch officials at Transport House, Norwich, argues that abolition is wrong and unfair. Defra accepts that 154,000 workers are covered by the AWB’s 59-page statutory order but Unite reckons that thousands more have “mirror” pay, terms and conditions.

First, the political issue. Andrew George, the Lib Dems’ Defra spokesman, has said that he doesn’t support abolition. “If he had been consulted, he would have opposed it,” said Mr Waddell.

And the Lib Dem manifesto was silent on abolition, so was the coalition agreement. “We will stress that abolition is not coalition policy.”

Mr Waddell, who heads the union’s six-strong delegation, defended the 59-page Wages Order, now written in Plain English. It is effectively a contract of employment. “In local government, they have an agreement which runs to a couple of hundred pages. I used to work in the MOD: there are 12 volumes of a manual.

“Agriculture is different. It was recognised as the sweated occupation when the AWB was set up in the 1920s.” People then worked long hours and there was real pressure on the earnings of the industry.

“That still describes agriculture today. People working 70, 80 and 90 hours a week is very common in agriculture. It has the worst health-and-safety record in British industry in terms of deaths and serious injuries per hundred thousand people.”

Mr Waddell has asked farming minister Jim Paice and the NFU to say how individuals will negotiate pay and terms and conditions. “The NFU’s response is, ‘Trust us, we’re decent people’.

“At the same time, they’re going cap in hand to government, saying, ‘We’re strapped for cash and under pressure from the supermarkets’.

“You can’t square that situation with a scenario that once statutory protection is removed, workers’ wages will increase in some way. They’re bound to be under downward pressure. What the NFU have deliberately ignored is that only 20pc of the workforce is grade one – 80pc are on grade two from standard workers up to farm managers.

“We make the point repeatedly: These are minimum rates of pay. It is on the front page of the Wages Order. If as the NFU say, there’s a huge skills shortage, pressure on wages would be upward.

“We’ve challenged them to produce standard workers or farm managers at any grade who are paid substantially above the minimum rates of pay because there’s a skills shortage. They can’t.

“We’ve also been working on a modernisation agenda with the NFU, acknowledging head on some of their issues. We’re still willing and I’ve urged Peter Kendall, NFU president, to meet Unite to discuss the future of farming. We’re not being intransigent or stuck in the mud.

“The Wages Order over time has evolved. It makes life easier because all the legal provisions and various statutes are in one document. I’ve been warning the NFU for some time that it is opening Pandora’s Box.

“Every employer, every farmer will have to become familiar with all employment law. I think that they’ll struggle with it. We’ve said to the NFU: If you’ve got a problem with any section of the order, talk to us. They’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There might be moans and gripes about the Order but what will replace it will be anarchic.

“This measure was put forward in John Major’s government in the 1990s. It was defeated and was the only wages council to be retained by a Tory government.

“There’s every chance with a sustained and persuasive campaign that we can retain the AWB. It is clear to me the farming community is divided. While the NFU support abolition, the Farmers’ Union of Wales want to retain it.”

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