Britain’s biggest union has accused the government of breaching farmworkers’ human rights by abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board.
The Unite union has filed an application over the issue with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Abolished in England this autumn, the AWB set minimum wage rates and made other provisions related to the terms of employment for some 150,000 farmworkers in England and Wales.
The position regarding the AWB in Wales remains under discussion, while Scotland and Northern Ireland are retaining their boards.
Unite argues that the abolition of the AWB breaches the UK’s obligations under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of association.
The union said it expected the case to demonstrate the extent of the government’s obligation to promote and protect collective bargaining under international labour standards.
Unite assistant general secretary, Diana Holland said: “The abolition of the AWB by the Tory-led government is a stain on democracy and we believe that it is also a breach of basic human rights.
She added: “There wasn’t even a debate or a vote in parliament on the government’s proposal to abolish the AWB.”
The board was a vital mechanism for maintaining adequate living standards for agricultural workers, said Ms Holland.
“Our members in low paid rural industries are facing a serious assault from a multi-million pound food industry backed by the government.”
DEFRA described farm labour restrictions as outdated and bureaucratic when it announced its decision to abolish the AWB last year.
“This will end an anomaly requiring farmers to follow outdated and bureaucratic rules dating back to the beginning of the 20th century,” it said.
Abolishing the board would lead to a more flexible labour market and make it easier for employees to receive annual salaries, rather than hourly wages, in line with modern arrangements.
Although the AWB would be abolished, workers would continue to be protected by the National Minimum Wage, said DEFRA.
NFU chief economist Phil Bicknell said: “The reality is that the intention to abolish the wages board was announced in 2010 and that the board was formally abolished on 25th June this year. Agriculture is now on a par with other sectors of the economy when it comes to employment issues.
“The NFU focus through the summer and autumn has been on ensuring our members are aware of the changes, understand their employment obligations and are equipped to deal with the transition.
“As part of our support, we’ve distributed almost 4,000 Employer Information Packs and hosted 35 meetings across the country where members have been able to question employment law specialists and experts from ACAS.”
More information on the abolition of the AWB is available on the NFU website.
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