Farm wages watchdog faces the axe: Union warns of action to protect 250,000 of lowest-paid workers

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT is considering abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board, which dictates minimum rates for 250,000 of the lowest-paid workers in Britain.

The review of the board comes as the last remaining wages councils, which fixed basic pay for 2.4 million workers in the service sector, are wound up next Monday. The body covering farm workers will be Britain's last statutory organisation with the power to stipulate basic pay.

Ministers are at pains to say that they have not arrived at a final decision over farm workers, but in a consultation document the Ministry of Agriculture remarks that laws on minimum pay distort the labour market and destroy jobs.

Any attempt to wind up the board will encounter opposition from both the Transport and General Workers' Union, which represents farm labourers, and the National Farmers' Union, covering 100,000 managers, tenants and owners.

Workers covered by the board are entitled to between pounds 138.31 and pounds 186.72 for a 39-hour week. The board also dictates overtime rates, holiday entitlement and the rent paid on tied cottages. The union points out that farm workers earn only 76 per cent of the average industrial rate. Their average hourly pay, excluding overtime but including bonuses, is 70 per cent of the industrial average.

Government officials say that the board is the subject of a routine five yearly review, but management and unions believe that the abolition of wages councils puts greater pressure on the board. The consultation period was due to end on 1 September, but has been extended to 1 November.

Concern in the industry has been enhanced by the appointment of Gillian Shephard as Minister of Agriculture; as Secretary of State for Employment she was largely responsible for steering the wages council legislation through the Commons. The TGWU is organising a march and rally to defend the board on 9 October in Swaffham, part of Mrs Shephard's Norfolk South West constituency.

Bill Morris, general secretary of the TGWU, indicated yesterday that industrial action is likely if the Government ends the minimum wage in the industry. 'The last thing we want to see is industrial conflict on our farms, but that is absolutely what would happen,' Mr Morris said.

He warned that farm workers 'would have to become either slave labour or industrial fighters if the Wages Board was abolished'.

Labour's agricultural spokesman, Gavin Strang, said he was in no doubt the board is under threat. 'There is no question that this is not a routine review,' he said. 'It is in fact a follow- up to the decision to abolish wages councils.'

He believed that it would inevitably lead to lower wages and increased hardship which would jeopardise fragile rural economies and widen the incomes gap between indigenous village populations and urban incomers.

A spokeswoman for the NFU said the board presided over a 'useful and effective structure' and that the alternative of farm by farm negotiations constituted 'a nightmare'. The wages set by the board were an invaluable 'floor' to rates in the industry but most farms paid more.