There are just days to stop the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board in England and Wales (AWB) – the last bulwark against 150,000 people working on the land sliding into poverty, Unite, the country’s largest union, warned today (Wednesday 31 October).
To drive home the gravity of the crisis, a team of irate ‘badgers’ - another countryside community to suffer ill treatment at the hands of the government - will be protesting at a meeting of the AWB board at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in Smith Square, London SW1P 3HA at 9.30am on Friday 2 November.
The ‘badgers’ – protesters in badger masks and a Mr Badger suit – are drawing attention to the fact that the consultation on the future of the AWB in England and Wales, which the government wants to abolish, ends on 12 November – just four weeks after it was announced.
Unite national officer Julia Long said: “The ‘badger’ protest makes a serious point – if the government could stop the cull of the badger population very abruptly – it could easily do the same for the AWB.”
Last week Unite called on David Heath, the minister of state at Defra to extend the consultation on the future of the AWB to at least 12 weeks, so that interested bodies, particularly small organisations, have enough time to formulate their arguments for the retention of the AWB.
Julia Long said: “The government is pushing this through with indecent haste; no doubt, influenced by the vested interests of the big employers that want to drive wages down to poverty levels.
“There is no way that those living in rural communities could engage in a digital only consultation in the four week time span – broadband access is patchy in many parts of the countryside.
“Many will not be aware that the consultation is happening at all, as there has been no attempt to engage with ‘hard to reach’ communities.
“A total of 154,000 workers rely on the AWB to maintain some sort of income on which to bring up their families – the abolition of the AWB will see £140 million a year ‘lifted’ from low-paid workers and be ‘kept’ by the employers, who will also pocket millions more in holiday, overtime and sickness pay that they won’t have to fork out.
“We well know that many rural communities are economically and socially fragile. And as wages collapse, we are deeply concerned that employers will see children and the under-18s on even lower national minimum wage rates as an attractive proposition for the money-obsessed supply chain.
“On Friday members of the AWB board have a real opportunity to stand and be counted to maintain a viable economic framework in England and Wales’ rural areas. They should not be bounced into throwing the countryside into a downward spiral of poverty and hopelessness.”
Unite says that while the Westminster government wants to abolish the AWB in England and Wales, the devolved governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland were keeping their AWBs and there was a commitment by the Welsh government to retain its AWB.
Unite is not against the modernisation of the AWB, but that many rural communities are on a knife edge where low wages are the norm – and to afford some protection against rural poverty was the reason that the AWB, which has it origins in the First World War, came into being in the first place.
For further information please contact the Unite press office on 020 3371 2065
- Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with 1.5 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.