Axing AWB is a positive move

When the Agricultural Wages Board was set up in the 1940s, it was a useful organisation.

In an era before modern employment laws, it helped to give hundreds of thousands of isolated workers protection from unscrupulous employers.

But 70 years later, it feels like a body that has had its day.

So it is positive news that MPs this week voted in favour of the removal of the AWB as part of the Public Bodies Bill.

Abolishing the AWB will remove an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and, in reality, will have a limited impact on workers. In a world where there is already a shortage of skilled staff, farmers know that if they want to secure labour, they need to be prepared to pay what it is worth.

Nowadays, employees are widely protected by employment law and the introduction of the minimum wage by the previous government has meant the AWB has become increasingly irrelevant.

There are about 120,000 workers on British farms and they are the backbone of the farming industry. Many employers report they have been paying well over the terms stipulated by the AWB for years.

As the sector has got more advanced, employment terms and conditions have been transformed. Pretending we are an industry still in the 1940s makes little sense. Removing the AWB is recognition that agriculture has modernised and moved into the 21st century.

Not everyone is in agreement. The union Unite – which acts as a voice for farm workers – argues that if the AWB is removed then rural workers will face diminishing pay and worsening conditions.

But this week they undermined their arguments by staging a protest outside Parliament, where campaigners dressed up as scarecrows.

The union chose to exploit a photo opportunity. But this kind of lobbying perpetuates the myth of farm workers as yokels chewing on pieces of straw, rather than the professional and valued workforce they are. It felt like Unite was patronising farm workers, as opposed to representing them appropriately.

As farming moves forward, employers must not be complacent. We need to be mindful that if new entrants are to be attracted into the industry, it has to keep evolving to compete with other industries.

Terms and conditions will need to be updated to keep agriculture looking an attractive prospect for the talent that exists in the next generation.

Workers of the future will be increasingly looking for apprenticeships, flexible working arrangements, more generous holiday allowances and a framework that allows them to move up the career ladder. If the farming industry cannot meet these challenges then the skills shortage will become even more acute.

Removing the AWB will allow farmers to operate on the same terms as any other business. We are on the verge of a new era.

Editorial by FW content editor Isabel Davies

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