Farm workers could lose �240m

Up to �240m could be snatched from casual farm workers if the government goes ahead and scraps the body that sets their wages in England.

Currently all casual farm workers in England and Wales have their pay set by the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), established in 1924 after the bitter Norfolk farm workers' strike.

But the coalition announced plans to scrap it as part of the 'bonfire of the quangos', which would result in agricultural employers setting pay locally. Meanwhile some rights that the AWB has secured for the 152,000 casual farm workers in England and Wales, such as payment for annual leave, could also be lost if the body is scrapped.

On Tuesday ministers launched a consultation on the abolition; for the first time publishing an impact assessment detailing the possible losses which may be suffered by casual workers including minors and migrants,

In the document Whitehall officials suggested casual workers could lose up to �140m from their wages over 10 years and �100m from payment for annual leave.

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Labour's shadow farming minister Huw Irranca-Davies accused the government of increasing the pressure on already hard-pressed families in rural areas.

He said: 'The Tory-led government are out of touch with rural workers worried about rising living costs and falling wages.

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'Even the Government now admits that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board could lead to lower wages.'

He added: 'Once again this Tory-led government is creating a race to the bottom in pay for rural communities. The countryside needs a plan to create prosperity for rural communities, not one that leaves our lowest paid workers out of pocket.'

New wage rates implemented by the AWB in September mean that this year workers at grades two and above received a 2.8pc pay rise, to �6.96 per hour, and workers at grade one received a 1.8pc increase.

According to figures from the House of Commons Library there are 1,170 workers in Broadland, 960 in Mid Norfolk, 770 in North Norfolk, 930 in South Norfolk, 800 in North West Norfolk and 2,390 in South West Norfolk. Across the East of England there are 24,270 in total.

However, the National Farmers' Union chief economist Phil Bicknell pointed out that the government's impact assessment also said the move would reduce costs for farmers.

He went on: 'The impact assessment on wage levels talks about a range of potential impacts from zero upwards.

'Just because you see the abolition of the AWB it does not mean that the level of farm workers' wages will automatically drop to the national minimum wage.

'They may not fall as much, they may not fall at all.'

The government consultation on the AWBs abolition will last just under a month, finishing on November 12. Responses can be submitted through the website of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Farming minister David Heath said: 'Agricultural wages boards were designed almost 100 years ago when conditions were very different to the modern age, and there was little to protect workers from unscrupulous employers.

'Now we have the National Minimum Wage and other employment protections, it's about time we got rid of a burdensome anomaly.'

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