Wages board loss would be disaster, warns MP

The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) would be a disaster for Welsh farmers with the poorest earners hit hardest, an MP has warned.

Scrapping the AWB would see millions of pounds being taken away from rural workers and transferred in large amounts to the large landowners and horticultural businesses, claims Pontypridd Labour Welsh Assembly member Mick Antoniw.

Based on the latest economic impact assessment by the UK government, under abolition, between £26m to £28m would be transferred from the income of Wales’ farmworkers to employers over the next 10 years, he said.

The sum will be made up of lower wages, lower sickness entitlement, reduced holiday pay and a reduction in other terms and conditions of employment, Mr Antoniw estimated.

“Abolition of the AWB will be a disaster for rural communities in Wales. It will hit the lowest paid, in particular agricultural workers. It will send a message that Welsh agriculture is closed for business. There is already a skills shortage in rural communities,” he said.

“Reducing wages and terms and conditions for agricultural workers says the UK government does not believe in a future for rural communities other than on the basis of the lowest levels of pay possible.

“If anything we should be improving terms and conditions, creating security of employment, a career pathway and improved skills and training.”

Its abolition in Wales would create a new burden of administration and responsibility upon smaller employers who have not called for it to be scrapped, he added.

DEFRA plans to disband the AWB for England and Wales, the statutory panel that sets minimum wages and other terms and conditions for agricultural workers, to bring the industry into line with all other areas of the economy.

In contrast, Scotland and Northern Ireland have opted to retain their agricultural wage boards.

Mr Antoniw said even the government’s own figures confirm that across the UK the worst case scenario is £279.7m being taken away from agricultural workers over the next decade – and at best £259m.

However, farming unions have rubbished claims that the abolition of the AWB will hit farming incomes.

Phil Bicknell, NFU chief economist, said there was “no new case for reversing abolition”, adding that it was “important to cut through the hyperbole” that farming incomes would be hit.

“The reality is that workers with contractual rights would see their terms and conditions continue after AWB abolition,” said Mr Bicknell. “Moreover, workers and employers alike will have greater flexibility to agree pay and rewards which suit their own circumstances.”

Over the long term, demand for both workers and skills in agriculture are set to increase, which runs contrary to the claims that wages will be eroded, he added.

Mr Bicknell also pointed out that the majority of farmworkers were already paid in excess of the AWB, with many farmers “already negotiating their own agreements”.

“To have a board consisting of 21 people that sets pay rates for an industry that employs 142,000 workers in England and Wales and adds £8.8bn to our economy is a clear anomaly,” said Mr Bicknell.

“This wage-setting framework in agriculture and horticulture is not consistent with modern working practices.”

A DEFRA spokesman said: “Compared to other sectors such as forestry and fisheries the agricultural sector has been kept inflexible and held back from employing new people.

“Removing this anachronism will create the right conditions for businesses to thrive and create more jobs for the workforce, which will generate more spending in local economies.

“Workers will keep the same employment rights as all other workers across the economy and with a high demand for agricultural labour farmers are likely to continue offering more attractive packages.”

Last week, members of the House of Lords delayed the UK government’s plans to abolish the AWB at the committee stage. The bill will now be subject to a vote at the end of February or beginning of March.

Philip Case on G+.

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