Gregor Gall- Guardian Comment is Free
The government’s decision to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) has been presented by the secretary of state in charge, Caroline Spelman, as a simple matter of clearing up unnecessary duplication of arms’ length bodies under the remit of her department, Defra.
Indeed, it should come as no particular shock, Spelman says, because this pledge to end what is seen as bureaucracy and waste was contained in the Conservative manifesto for the 2010 general election.
The implication of this rationale for the abolition of the AWB is that agricultural workers face no detriment from being protected only by the National Minimum Wage Act.
Whether through ignorance or sleight of hand, this is far from the case because the AWB has a relatively wide set of powers over terms and conditions while, since it came into effect in 1999, the national minimum wage covers only minimum hourly pay rates (categorised by age) and nothing else. And under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948, the AWB enforces these terms through a legal instrument called an agricultural wages order.
So among the terms of the orders – which are reviewed and raised annually – is a raft of allowances including:
• Accommodation (where living at or on the work premises is necessary)
• Overtime (at time and a half)
• Sick pay
• Food and care for dogs (where a dog is needed to do the work)
• Rest breaks of 30 minutes for every five and a half hours of work
• Bad weather payments (so that workers are not penalised for not being able to work because of the weather)
On top of this, the orders set minimum hour wages by grade rather than just by age. So the 2009-2010 national minimum wage is £5.80 for an adult over 21 years of age while the rates for those above compulsory school age range from £5.81 to £8.64 under the AWB. For 2010-2011, the national minimum wage will rise to £5.93 while those in agriculture are due to rise to between £5.95 and £8.88.
Furthermore, the method of enforcement is far more lax under the national minimum wage than the AWB, and there are still loopholes by which employers can avoid paying the minimum wage.
None of this is to say the AWB is anywhere near perfect. It is not as the Country Standard argues. But it does fix a floor for overall conditions that farmers have been keen to get rid of. And now that floor is going to be lowered even further.
The AWB was the only wages board to survive the abolition of wage regulation by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. This was because even the Thatcherites recognised how “sweated” agricultural work was, namely, it was exceedingly low paid, dirty, dangerous and often seasonal, and thus merited some basic form of regulation. The consequences of the abolition will make the vulnerable even more vulnerable, as the shadow Defra secretary, Hilary Benn, recognised. He commented this was an “unjustified attack on agricultural workers“. The fact that a term of employment like statutory holiday is now provided by general employment law does not alter this.
With market forces now more fully unleashed, farmers will do away with many of the compulsory terms and conditions that the AWB provided for. They may do this because they are greedy and capricious. If they are not, they may still do it because gangmasters (despite some minimal regulation) can provide workers more cheaply than they can or because the big buyers of agricultural produce such as Tesco decide to ask for ever tougher terms in supply contracts. This may benefit consumers but there will be a price to be paid – even if it is not by the consumer at large.