The fact that more than 60 years of pay protection for 150,000 rural workers in England and Wales was abolished today (Tuesday 16 April) without a proper parliamentary debate is ‘a national disgrace’, Unite, the largest union in the country, said.
Unite is angry that the Commons debate on the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform bill was guillotined, so MPs could not debate the amendment abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board which has protected the incomes of 150,000 agricultural workers since the second world war.
Unite said that the demise of the Agricultural Wages Board on 1 October this year could now prompt a challenge to the European Court of Human Rights, as thousands of agricultural workers face a threat to their homes.
Unite national officer for agriculture Julia Long said: “What we have witnessed today is a national disgrace and the capitulation of MPs to the interests of the big employers and the supermarkets, who want to ruthlessly drive down costs.
“There was not even a vote on the amendment by MPs on this vital issue which is a stain on democracy. The spectre of poverty embracing the countryside is now very real.”
It is estimated that there are about 60,000 agricultural workers and managers in accommodation provided by their employer. They could face losing their homes after 1 October, if they left their current employment and had to negotiate a new contract.
Unite has vowed to fight to restore the Agricultural Wages Board and will set up a ‘wages watch’ unit to monitor any assaults on the pay and conditions of its members in the coming months.
Unite has already made a submission to the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights making the point that: “The destruction of the Agricultural Wages Board without replacement by an alternative collective bargaining body for the agricultural industry will be in plain breach of the UK’s international obligations.”
Julia Long said: “This is a very sad day for those working on the land in England and Wales – it removes pay protection that has existed for more than six decades and puts many workers at risk of losing their homes, if they move jobs.
“According to the government’s own impact assessment, if a worker leaves their current job or entered into a new contract, they would need to renegotiate the arrangements for accommodation with their employer.
“This means that isolated workers will be ill-placed to negotiate to retain their homes and this will contribute to the spiral of poverty that will afflict the countryside once the Agricultural Wages Board is abolished on 1 October.
“So grave is the situation that Unite is considering its position with regard to the European Court of Human Rights and we are urging the Joint Committee on Human Rights to investigate the Agricultural Wages Board’s abolition because of the human rights issues at stake.
“In the meantime, Unite will be setting up a ‘wages watch’ unit to monitor any attacks on the wages and threats to the homes of our members, so we can build the case for the restoration of the Agricultural Wages Board as a key institution in maintaining and improving the incomes of rural workers.
“The Tories and their coalition partners, the Lib Dems have taken the side of the employers and the supermarkets who wish to drive down wages to boost their own profits, at the expense of those that work on the land.”
For further information please contact Unite senior communications officer Shaun Noble on 07768 693940
- 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.