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A win for big business – and the rural poor become poorer

MP Nia Griffith and campaigners protest the AWB abolitionYet another way that this government has changed the law without a proper parliamentary debate has been by bungling the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), into a much wider enterprise and regulatory reform bill. When the issue returned to the Commons, it was not even debated but forced through by guillotine without a vote.

Nationally we have 150,000 rural workers in England and Wales that were protected by this Board for pay, holidays, sick pay and housing. Many farm workers rent housing tied to the job. From April 16th all this is abolished, and the spectre of poverty embracing the countryside is now very real.

It will seriously affect those living in the tied accommodation, as they face the threat of higher rents or even lose their homes to private rents.

The Wages Board set annual pay rates for agricultural workers from grade 1 at £6.21 per hour to experienced farm managers at £9.40 per hour. Agriculture is classed as the UK’s most dangerous industry. It requires long and difficult hours, and years of training and experience and expertise-gathering. The average worker age is 55. Now all this will count for nothing, as employers decide not to pay workers any increases in pay. They may even lower their pay.

Yes, we know that there are problems for the industry – health crisis, blight, floods, drought – but there are no prizes for guessing who will profit from the demise of the Board. Not the workers.

Lets turn to the NFU, which represents farm management in this equation. The NFU says it wants to be treated like any other industry in the 21st century. But what other industry enjoys an annual subsidy of £34bn and an opt-out from the working-time directive? Now on top of that, they want the tax-payer to subsidise their wages bills by paying in-work benefits to workers paid poverty wages.

Let’s not forget that the big profiteers are the supermarkets and food manufacturers including Morrisons and Sainsburys. Then there’s the likes of Lord Vestey, owner of Stowell Park, a business that lobbied in favour of the AWB’s abolition. These companies profit handsomely from the tightening grip of retail on our food industry. For them, the AWB stood in their way of ever larger profits whilst workers rarely attract a living wage.

So now, many agricultural workers will wait till October 1st when they could face losing their homes. This could be a challenge to the European Court of Human Rights, as well as being in breach of the UKs International obligations.

Let’s hope that the employers do not take advantage of the loss of the AWB to empoverish agricultural workers countrywide. But yet again, we see where this government’s priorities lie.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Campaign Briefing, CLPD’s magazine distributed to all members and CLPs

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