Gavin Strang MP is to initiate a debate in the House of Commons late on Wednesday night to make the case for retaining the Agricultural Wages Boards.
The Government is considering the future of the Boards as part of the quinquennial review which they are required to carry out by statute.
Extracts of his speech follow:
‘British farmworkers are skilled workers who deserve a decent rate for the job. But individual farmworkers are in an exceptionally weak negotiating position with their employers. They tend to be isolated, working alone, and often their house goes with their job. There is little mobility of labour, and the social relationship with the farmer can bring its own pressures.
‘That is why the Agricultural Wages Boards are so important. It is where both parties in the agricultural industry negotiate to reach an annual agreement on farmworkers’ pay and conditions.
‘There has been a historic consensus of support for the Agricultural Wages Boards. Farmers don’t want a minority in their midst undercutting them by paying exploitative wages, and the Boards remove the time-consuming and stressful work associated with pay negotiations. Furthermore, unlike other industries, farmers receive large sums of money from the taxpayer in the form of subsidies. It has long been accepted that as a quid pro quo farmers should be required to provide statutory minimum rates of pay and conditions.
‘While the NFU and the Scottish NFU report that their members currently want to see the Boards abolished, the Country Landowners Association, the Farmers Union of Wales and the TGWU – the rural and agricultural workers’ union – are supporting the Boards.
‘It is to the credit of this Labour Government that the National Minimum Wage and the Working Time Regulations are in place. But this improved legislation is in no way a substitute for the Boards. The National Minimum Wage and the provisions of the Working Time Regulations are intended as a floor below which it would be wrong to employ someone.
‘The Agricultural Wages Boards are entirely different. The Boards provide the forum where both parties in the industry reach an agreement which reflects the state of the agricultural industry. The Country Landowners Association states that it is ‘extremely important that the industry should continue to regulate the level of pay for agricultural workers and be able to take into account the peculiarities of employment in agriculture’.
‘Secondly, the Boards provide far more than the National Minimum Wage and the Working Time Regulations.
· The Agricultural Minimum Wage is higher than the National Minimum Wage – the standard agricultural adult hourly rate is £4.57 in England and Wales, £4.42 in Scotland and £4.38 in Northern Ireland compared to the adult national minimum wage of £3.60.
· The Board in England and Wales sets down rates of pay to reflect the skills of farmworkers. The Farmers Union of Wales says that ‘rewarding qualifications, levels of responsibility etc is a vital means of persuading high-calibre people to remain in or enter the industry.’
· The Boards set overtime rates, a better working week, better sick pay, better holidays and rest breaks, a rate for working at night, a better rate for tied accommodation, an allowance for keeping a working dog, and holiday entitlement for working Sundays. The Boards also provide for paid paternity, adoption and bereavement leave.
‘The Boards have not been over-generous to farmworkers – they contain equal numbers of representatives of both farmworkers and farmers. Average pay in the agriculture, hunting and forestry sector is still £129 less every week than the average weekly pay in manufacturing.
‘If the Boards were abolished or weakened, it would not just be agricultural workers who would suffer. The Boards’ rates are used as a benchmark throughout the rural economy. And if farmworkers receive less pay, then it will mean more rural social exclusion, less money spent in the rural economy and a greater cost to the state through Working Families Tax Credit.
‘In opposition the Labour Party campaigned successfully alongside the farmworkers, other parties and indeed the farmers, against the Conservatives’ proposals to abolish the Agricultural Wages Boards. We said that a Labour Government would keep the Boards and we knew that it was crucial that the Boards were not weakened.
‘The Agricultural Wages Boards perform a most important service for farm workers, for the agricultural industry and for the rural economy. It would be a great mistake to weaken or abolish the Wages Boards.’