Union calls for rise in farm wages

Trade union Unite has called for a wage increase for agricultural and horticultural workers, after the uplift in farm incomes last year.

National secretary Chris Kaufman said farming was insulated from the recession and the 42% increase (36% in real terms) in 2008 Total Income From Farming showed there was room for wages to rise, despite suggestions that profits could fall sharply in 2009.

“Agriculture shouldn’t be seen in the same light as other industries, such as car building, which is struggling in the recession. The industry has been benefiting from increased prices and we want the workers to share in these benefits,” he said.

But Mr Kaufman said average farmworker pay was at least 20% behind the industrial sector average. “There’s a history of poor pay in agriculture and it’s time to start redressing this. Also, part of the reason we agreed the new pay structure with the NFU a couple of years ago was to attract younger people into the industry. To do that, it’s got to be competitive with other sectors.”

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Mr Kaufman said a more detailed pay increase claim would be submitted in April, and talks with the Agricultural Wages Board would begin in June.

But the NFU‘s head of economics Tom Hind said: “There’s no denying farm incomes were better in 2008 and the industry is better placed than others to withstand recession. But there are a lot of other pressures in 2009, both in terms of prices and input costs. If employees go too far in their demands, it will undermine agriculture’s ability to withstand the downturn,” he said.

The Tenant Farmers Association‘s George Dunn added that DEFRA’s TIFF figures generally related to March 2008 financial year-ends and a lot had changed since then. “We have to be careful not using historic figures to set current wages rates.

“The amount of hired labour used on tenanted farms has been declining year on year. Some is pricing itself out of the market, as our members can’t afford to pay them. We’re also in the middle of the biggest round of rent reviews for over 10 years.”

Unite is also demanding that statutory agricultural pay rates are properly enforced. “Recent questions in parliament have revealed the scandal of under-payment of the rates, with 13-20% of workers not getting the rate for the proper grade,” Mr Kaufman said.