23 January 1998

Call for cut in working week to boost overtime earnings

By Jonathan Riley

WITH the annual agricultural pay negotiations set for Mar 17, farmworkers leaders are demanding a cut in the basic working week from 39 to 35 hours.

Barry Leathwood, head of the Transport and General Workers Union rural sector, said that this would bring the UK working week in line with working hours in other EU member states and would help to improve wages by boosting overtime.

"Farmworkers need this boost because wages in the UK are currently among the worst in Europe," he claimed. "Only Greece and Ireland have a lower wage than our basic £160.85 a week.

"And, when compared to the average of £335 for manual workers in other UK industries, even farm craftsmen grade wage rates of £248 a week are unacceptably low.

"Thats why we are calling for a minimum agricultural pay rate equivalent to the national average earnings for manual workers in our 1998 pay campaign," said Mr Leathwood.

He also insisted that MAFFs estimate of a 37% fall in farm incomes during 1997, should not affect pay negotiations because employers had enjoyed a six-year period where incomes had risen by 148% while farm workers had seen less than a 10% rise in wages.

But NFU chief economist Sion Roberts argued that farm wages had risen consistently above the inflation rate during this period, while employers had suffered a wildly fluctuating level of returns for their businesses.

And he explained that comparing the agricultural minimum wage with an average for manual workers, was unrealistic. "To date, agriculture is the only industry to have set a minimum wage. At £4.12/hour it does fall short of the average for manual workers, but it is in excess of the £3 to £4 rate being mooted as an acceptable national minimum wage," he said.

He also warned that profitability would be hit severely by a reduction in the working week.

Mr Roberts calculated that every one-hour reduction in the working week added at least £11m to wage bills for full-time workers alone. When part-time and seasonal workers were added, bills exceeded £20m for each hours reduction.