Huw Irranca-Davies MP argues the Tories’ scrapping of the Agricultural Workers Board shows it is out of touch with the countryside and rural workers.
Huw Irranca-Davies MP (Labour, Ogmore) is the shadow food and farming minister
Last week, the government once again showed it was out of touch with the countryside and rural workers.
We were debating the future of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB). This should have been of high importance to Conservative MPs who say that they understand the needs of rural communities.
However, just two lonely-looking conservative backbenchers graced the House of Commons for the debate. This just shows who really does stand with and for the rural worker. The outcome of the debate, however, was less than satisfactory.
The government defeated the amendment despite the agreement of the Liberal Democrat MP from St Ives (and one solitary Tory rebel, Julian Lewis from the New Forest). We are now left in a situation where 150,000 workers in England and Wales could potentially be financially worse off.
The AWB does not just provide protection of a minimum wage but it also grants sick and bereavement pay, overtime rates, rates for night work, standby allowances, rates for accommodation (if provided) and holiday entitlement.
It has been part of the fabric of the rural economy for sixty years providing certainty and fairness for farm workers. For an industry that is being squeezed for higher crop yields for lower prices, it does not seem feasible that the removal of the AWB will not mean lower wages.
The coalition does not get it; agricultural workers work in a dangerous, undervalued industry and should receive a decent wage for a decent days work.
Casual and under-16 workers (40,000) will be hit financially almost immediately as the minimum wage does not protect either of these types of workers. The other 110,000 agricultural workers in England and Wales will see their wages erode over time with large reductions in sick pay.
At a time when living standards are decreasing and essentials are increasing in price, it hardly seems fair that one of the most essential industries receives a pay cut.
A protest was staged last week with many protesters dressed as scarecrows. Their aim was to lobby parliament in order to keep the AWB. It is clear that despite this public show of support, the government did not listen and had no intention of listening as is shown by the absolute disregard of the AWB by most conservative MPs in the debate last week.
Jim Paice, minister of state for environment, food and rural affairs, stated the AWB was:
“outdated and gold-plated the provisions of the national minimum wage legislation and working time regulations.”
I refute, absolutely, the statement that the AWB is gold-plated. It costs around £200,000 a year but the removal of the AWB could cost the rural economy up to £9 million a year.
The coalition does not get it. We are hitting the workers that maintain food supplies and production. The removal of the AWB does not make sense and will persuade skilled workers to look elsewhere for jobs at a time when more skilled workers are necessary. It is just one more example of the government’s failure to resolve the economic issues this country faces.
Clement Attlee once said “farmers and the farm workers should be given a fair and square deal” which my Labour colleagues and I still feel is appropriate today.
With an increase in population and worries concerning food security, food supplies and food production it is inconceivable that their wages will not be protected. The Labour party and I are clear that farm workers still deserve transparent, fair remuneration, which is why we voted to protect the Agricultural Wages Board. It is a shame that the government isn’t listening.
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