2 May 1997

Row over hourly pay rates

By Tony McDougal

FARM workers are threatening to take legal action to overturn a Scottish Agricultural Wages Board agreement which has left workers being paid an hourly rate rather than a weekly wage.

They claim the agreement, which was reached last June and came into force in January, has removed guaranteed payments for their 39-hour working week.

"This means workers get paid for the hours they work. If it rains and the employer decides there is no work to do, then there are no wages. The weekly minimum wage is low enough already, yet it is coming under threat still further," said a Transport and General Workers Union spokeswoman.

Barry Leathwood, TGWU agriculture secretary, said lawyers were looking at legal precedents to see whether the union could overturn the decision.

But John McMyn, an employer member of the Scottish Wages Board, dismissed the TGWUs interpretation. There was no question of full-time Scottish farm workers not being paid if the weather prevented normal working, he said. The new, hourly rate was paid for an agreed number of hours for each seven-day week. Overtime came in after 40 hours in a week or eight hours in a day.

Mr Leathwood said he was first aware of the Scottish changes when the NFU brought them up at the Wages Board talks in March. "We believe the proposals were put forward in Scotland to try to undermine our position here in England, but they were quickly thrown out."

But with the TGWU also representing Scottish farm workers, Mr McMyn said he could not believe Mr Leathwood had not heard full details of the scheme from his colleagues in Scotland. Mr McMyn thought the new system would work well and pave the way for farm worker salaries.

The NFU in England and Wales is also interested in setting up an optional annualisation of working hours scheme. Janine Garai, NFU employment law adviser, believed it would provide job security and greater flexibility to farmworkers.

"At present there is more work in the summer than during the winter and a lot of farm workers are on short-term seasonal contracts," she said. The NFU planned to meet the farm workers union this summer to continue the discussions.