Farmworkers protested outside the Oxford Farming Conference at the government’s decision to abolish the agricultural minimum wage.
Members of the Unite union gathered outside the conference centre on Oxford High Street ahead of a keynote speech by DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson on Thursday (3 January).
Scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board would hit the incomes of 140,000 farmworkers, warned Unite national officer Julia Long.
“Agricultural workers are very angry at what they see as a sustained attack on their living standards by a government that has sold out to the interests of agri-business,” she said.
Abolishing the wages board in England and Wales would destroy a protection enjoyed by farmworkers since the First World War, said Ms Long.
“This is the shabby benchmark of the coalition government.”
Unite, the country’s biggest union, had campaigned against the AWB’s abolition, following a fast-track government consultation on its future.
The union claims that most responses to the consultation were in favour of retention. But the government confirmed just before Christmas the board would be axed this autumn.
In its consultation submission, Unite had argued that supermarkets and the growers that supply them were behind moves to abolish the AWB in order to cut labour costs.
But the government harmonising the law governing agricultural wages with the rest of the economy would end an anomaly requiring farmers to follow outdated and bureaucratic rules.
Farm minister Heath said: “Scrapping these outdated and bureaucratic rules will significantly reduce burdens to farmers while keeping workers extremely well protected.
He added: “I’m convinced it’s the right move to help agriculture take advantage of the huge opportunities to prosper in coming years.”
Shadow farm minister Huw Irranca-Davies accused the government of “sneaking out” the decision just before Christmas with no regard to the will of the Welsh government.
Mr Irranca-Davies said: “The government admits that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board could take £240m out of the pockets of farmworkers over the next 10 years.”
He added: “The countryside needs a One Nation plan to create prosperity for rural communities, not a Scrooge-like commitment that leaves our lowest paid workers out of pocket.”
The NFU has consistently called for the abolition of the AWB, arguing that it is obsolete, generates an additional administrative burden and forces a one-size-fits-all approach on farmers.
NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond said the AWB had been superseded by the national minimum wage, leaving agriculture totally out of step with the rest of the UK workforce.
Mr Raymond said: “This makes the decision to abolish it right and proper, and will bring agriculture alongside other modern-day industries.”
Read more from the Oxford Farming Conference
Wages board to be scrapped from October 2013