The International Union of Food (IUF), Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Association has 387 affiliated unions in 120 countries and its warning comes just days before MPs vote on the future of the Agricultural Wages Board. The Board has protected the incomes of 150,000 agricultural workers since the Second World War.
In a letter to the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, IUF general secretary Ron Oswald wrote: “Agriculture globally remains the biggest user of child labour with 60 per cent of all child labour taking place in agriculture.”
The Agricultural Wages Board includes minimum pay rates for children of compulsory school age, and higher rates of pay for the over 16s than the National Minimum Wage.
Mr Oswald said: “We believe there is a strong possibility that the abolition of the AWB will make children more vulnerable to exploitation in agriculture.”
He added that the board’s abolition would drain £260m from agricultural workers’ pay packets over 10 years.
“It does not make economic sense in the current economic climate to remove deliberately cash from the rural economy and certainly runs counter to the claims being made by the Prime Minister that he is concerned about eliminating world hunger, most of which takes place in rural areas, while his government is taking measures to undermine food security for its own rural population,” Mr Oswald said.
Abolishing the AWB can only be interpreted as a dismantling of agricultural workers’ rights, he said.
The IUF highlighted last year’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation which pinpointed 14 forced labour practices in the UK food industry, such as not being paid, not being paid hours owed and not paying the National Minimum Wage.
Mr Oswald said that 13 EU member states remained signed up to the convention relating to minimum wage-fixing in agriculture. Julia Long, national officer for agriculture at Unite, Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with 1.5 million members working across all sectors of the economy, said: “The IUF letter reinforces Unite’s case that the board’s abolition could herald poverty wages on the land; very suspect employment practices; and the real possibility of child labour being exploited shamelessly by ruthless bosses.”
But Ministers refused to back down and moved to reassure workers that they would be protected by employment legislation if the AWB is abolished.
The Government consulted on the future of the AWB for England and Wales and reached its conclusions in December.
A Defra spokesman said: “Abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board is in the long-term interests of the farming industry and farm workers. Like all other workers across the economy, they will be protected by the National Minimum Wage and modern employment legislation.
“Rates of pay in the agricultural sector will need to be set at a level that is competitive with other lines of work open to young people.”
IUF-affiliated Unite is lobbying intensively in the run-up to when MPs vote on a government amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which would abolish the AWB, on Tuesday, April 16.