As part of Unite's fight to convince the government to retain the Agricultural Wages Board a rally was held in Norwich on Thursday 11 April. Local activists and officers from the Norwich, Ipswich and Cambridge area took to the streets of Norwich. Demonstrating that abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board would be a return to the past, Unite symbolised this by employing the use of a horse drawn cart to lead the small demo through the streets of the city, past City Hall where further activists joined the march.
The march concluded at the office of local Lib-Dem MP Simon Wright, where Norwich South Labour party political candidate Clive Lewis, accompanied by Unite regional officer Steve Harley, presented a letter calling upon Simon Wright to vote with the Labour MPs and against the Tories in supporting retention. Simon Wright was also challenged to go public in the local media and declare how he voted and the reasons for this. The letter set out how an estimated 6,000 workers in Norfolk alone are employed either directly or indirectly within the farming or horticultural sector and how abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board will directly impact on the local rural economy. Norwich North LPPC Jess Asato also attended to give her support.
Steve Harley said he wanted to thank all those who took part. The rally was never intended to be about mobilising dozens of people, but had been intended to deliver a clear message to reinforce what Unite has been calling for since abolition was first threatened over a year ago.
On 16 April the issue was presented before the House as part of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform bill. The bill was passed and in so doing decades of regulation has been wiped out and replaced by the working time directive and national minimum wage.
Steve stated: “In its action this government have clearly indicated that democracy is dead. Over 60 per cent of the bodies who responded to Defra's consultation on the future of the Agricultural Wages Board stated they were in favour of retention of the board. In abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board it is certain that the wages structure that currently exists will be destroyed, resulting in skilled labour exiting the sector and being replaced by cheap labour. As with most other sectors that use the national minimum wage as a wage rate, skilled labour will be replaced by the unskilled creating further concern for food safety.”
To illustrate just how far the National Farmers Union are out of step, the National Farmers Union deputy president recently stated that “the time for the Agricultural Wages Board was over … It has now been superseded by modern day developments like the national minimum wage.”
Steve asked: “How can a system which confines working adults to a fixed rate of pay be considered modern when the Agricultural Wages Board sets graded rates which reflect skill levels and which are all above the national minimum wage. The National Farmers Union has been part of the tripartite system which has been the Agricultural Wages Board. This is about and has always been about a Tory ideology to destroy any form of wage regulation and getting the support of a mislead organisation like the National Farmers Union was simply the green flag the Tories needed to carry through that ideology.”