Shadow environment minister Mary Creagh speaks out against the abolition of the Agricultural Workers Board, which has guaranteed a fair wage for farm workers for 62 years.
Mary Creagh MP is the shadow environment secretary
The fruit harvest is nearly over. The best of British apples, pears and plums are on the shelves of supermarkets, local shops and market stalls across the country. But have you ever stopped to think about the hand that picked them?
Fair trade campaigners have rightly highlighted the plight of farmers in other parts of the world. Yet there is now a threat to farm workers in our own country.
For over 60 years, fruit pickers, foresters and farm workers have had their pay and conditions protected by the Agricultural Wages Board, set up by the Attlee Government in 1948. The government is now proposing to abolish this body as part of the Public Bodies Bill (which originally contained the now infamous idea to sell off England’s forests).
You will not have heard of the Agricultural Wages Board. It is a small body which costs the Government practically nothing and sets fair wages and conditions for 140,000 agricultural workers in England – and around 12,000 in Wales.
Today, MPs will debate the Public Bodies Bill in Parliament which includes a clause to abolish the AWB.
The government says it’s committed to fairness – but the abolition of the AWB will lead to lower wages in the countryside, and a worse deal for farm workers and fruit pickers:
• According to Defra’s own figures, the abolition of the AWB will take £9 million a year out of the rural high street from holiday and sick pay alone;
• Forty two thousand casual workers will see a drop in wages once the AWB is gone (October 2012). The remaining 110,000 could see their wages eroded over time;
• Children – who do summer jobs or part-time jobs – currently receive £3.05 an hour but are not covered by the national minimum wage and so will have no wage protection when they do holiday or weekend work.
This is an unjustified attack on some of our lowest paid workers who do an essential job in one of our most dangerous industries. At the heart of Britain’s biggest manufacturing industry – the food production sector – farming needs more skilled workers. Instead the government is encouraging employers to join a race to the bottom on pay that will see skilled workers turn their back on the industry.
Indeed, the Farmers Union of Wales is opposed to the abolition of the AWB. They are concerned that the removal of the AWB will leave farmers exposed as they, as small employers, will have to negotiate pay and conditions with staff on an annual basis which will increase bureaucracy for them.
Many small farmers also rely on providing their skills to other farmers at AWB rates to ensure the viability of their businesses.
There are significant numbers of these agricultural workers in every region of the England, which is why I have written to all Tory MPs who have more than 500 agricultural workers in their constituency asking them to vote with us and against the board’s abolition today.
I have also written to all Lib Dem MPs as there was nothing in their manifesto about cutting the wages of rural workers:
|Total agricultural workers
Yorkshire and the Humber
East of England
South East and London
That is why today, Labour will be voting to keep the AWB and support a fair deal for those who work in the countryside. Labour has a campaign website where people can sign up to show their support, and you can also follow the campaign on twitter with #backtheapple.
The first trade union was set up in 1842 by six Tolpuddle workers who dared to speak out against low pay in the countryside. Today’s vote shows a government that is out of touch with the needs of the countryside. Labour will keep the spirit of Tolpuddle alive and well for the twenty first century.
• Cuts threaten to “destroy BBC Wales” claim NUJ – Ed Jacobs, September 7th 2011
• Government pushes through new powers to sell off our forests – David Babbs, January 28th 2011
• How many people does it take to change a government’s mind? – Johnny Chatterton, February 17th 2011
• What is Channel 4’s problem with reporting the Green movement? – Joss Garman, November 4th 2010
• Stealth cuts could threaten the green economy – Guy Shrubsole, February 15th 2011