Row rages over talks on rural pay boards

Agricultural Workers and MPs take part in a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament
Agricultural Workers and MPs take part in a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament
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MINISTERS have been accused of stalling the publication of responses to a “rushed” consultation on the future of the Agricultural Wages Board.

Unite has claimed Defra is dragging its feet to “dilute the opposition” to disbanding the panel, which protects the incomes of more than 150,000 agricultural workers.

Julia Long, the union’s national officer for agriculture, said Unite had been pressing officials on when the responses would be available for public viewing following the four-week consultation process.

“We think this is very important, as not only would it allow us to actually check the content, position and number of responses, it will also enable us to check this information against the Defra summary and response when it eventually appears,” she said.

“It will also highlight those organisations that missed out due to the extremely short consultation period and this would then add weight to our legitimate complaints about the whole consultation process.”

The union had campaigned for a 12-week consultation period to give interested parties time to formulate arguments for saving the board.

Unite has claimed abolishing it will entrench a “feudal” way of life for many agricultural workers and said the impetus to do away with it was coming from employers and supermarkets at the expense of workers.

“We believe that the government is dragging its feet in the hope that that this sustained attack on some of the lowest paid workers in the country will simply disappear,” said Ms Long.

“However, Unite will continue to shine a spotlight on the government’s shameful behaviour on this issue.”

But the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said any suggestion wages would fall if the panel goes was “scaremongering”.

Chief economist Phil Bicknell said: “The purpose of the board has been superseded by changes in wider employment legislation, not least the introduction of a national minimum wage in 1999.

“Agriculture is unique in having employment and wage terms covered by separate legislation so removing this seems entirely consistent with modern notions of workers’ rights, industrial relations and business management.”

Few farm workers only receive the minimum pay set by the board and average earnings for those in full-time employment were 41 per cent higher, he said adding: “Farmers pay competitive rates to attract and retain skills, just like any other business.

“Change represents a challenge for everyone, but the NFU believes simplification must be the order of the day.”

A Defra spokesman said it was carefully considering responses to the consultation, which ended on November 12.

“It’s not something we are going to rush – we want to get it right and we will make a decision in due course,” he said.

The UK government made a pledge to abolish the independent body in July 2010 and plans to disband it were confirmed in October.

Farming Minister David Heath said at the time that getting rid of the “burdensome anomaly” could free up farmers to create nearly 1,000 new jobs.

But his Labour opponent Huw Irranca-Davies accused the Tories of leading “a race to the bottom” and said lower wages would take £240m out of the rural economy.