24 March 2000
Farmers can afford wage rate — union

By Donald MacPhail

FARMERS can well afford to meet an imposed pay settlement for agricultural workers, claims a union representative.

On Thursday (23 March) the statutory Agriculture Wages Board set a basic rate for full and part-time workers of 4.57 an hour, an increase of 4.7% on the previous rate of 4.36.

Two per cent of this rise is to offset the removal of a time-and-a-quarter holiday rate currently received by full-time workers, due to an EU directive requiring that workers receive equal holiday pay.

The National Farmers Union claims this will cost an extra 40 million and lead to more job losses in an industry which shed 19,000 between June 1998-99.

But Barry Leathwood, Transport and General Workers Union national representative for rural workers, said the bulk of farm labourers are employed by the biggest farms, which have the resources to pay.

“We won the argument at the wages board by convincing the independent members that the largest 20% of the farms in England and Wales employing labour can well afford to pay a decent wage.

“When farmers had record profits in the mid-1990s they did not share them with the workers, and we were determined to ensure that the workers did not suffer in these rather more difficult times,” said Mr Leathwood.

He added that a 40m increase in wages was “peanuts” when compared to billions of pounds farmers received in aid.

Only 14% of revenue on the average farm – a total of 1.7bn – is spent on wages, pointed out Mr Leathwood.

The NFU expressed dismay that pay for casual workers has gone up from 3.69 to 3.73, above the National Minimum Wage rate which will be increased to 3.70 later this year.

But Mr Leathwood said the amount was tiny and claimed casual workers should receive the same rate as permanent colleagues in any case.

“In Scotland and Ireland the rate is the same; its only in England and Wales where casuals receive less.

“This has been abused by some gangmasters and farmers.”

The new rates will come into force on 4 June. The standard working week remains at 39 hours.

The TGWU had wanted a minimum rate of 5 an hour, reduction in the working week to 35 hours, and a contributory pension scheme.