Prime minister David Cameron has been told that the government could be acting unlawfully in its unseemly haste to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) on which more than 150,000 workers rely for a decent income.
Unite, the country’s largest union, is calling on the prime minister to extend the four week consultation period - due to close next Monday (12 November) - until 21 January 2013, so that all interested organisations can have a proper opportunity to make the case for the AWB’s retention. At stake is some £140 million in workers' wages which will, should the AWB be abolished, be retained by the employers, which include some of the biggest farm and retail outfits in the UK.
In a letter to the prime minister Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “Our legal advisers are reviewing the extent to which the government’s approach to this consultation has been lawful.”
While the government’s support for the living wage is to be welcomed, it cannot be that while Number 10 promotes action to improve incomes, Defra is rushing through consultation on proposals that will destroy rural wages.
Unite believes that the coalition is failing in its duty of care to the historic agricultural workforce, which has created one of the most efficient agricultural economies in the developed world and that if the AWB is abolished, this will accelerate the slide into rural poverty.
Len McCluskey added: “What is happening with the consultation on the future of the AWB is anti-democratic; hundreds of thousands of rural workers and stakeholder organisations are being locked out of the consultation to the certain detriment of the people most impacted by any abolition.
“There is concern within the National Farmers Union (NFU)*, as well as Unite and other consultees, about the potential scale of the internal consultation they need, set against the deadline imposed by government.
“Concerns have been expressed to Unite by some civil society groups that their views have not been sought and that the consultees draw heavily from the large employers and retailers. For instance, why are the views of the agricultural colleges not being sought?”
Len McCluskey said that the new consultation principles included the principle of ‘digital by default’, but for rural workers this was a “wholly inadequate” process.
He said: “Internet services in rural areas are notoriously poor due to historic government under-investment, and mobile reception being notoriously unreliable.
“The imposition of ‘digital by default’ on this consultation, in particular, is being seen as a deliberate attempt to evade the views of those seeking to defend the AWB.”
Unite has pointed out that while the Westminster government wanted 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 rural communities are economically fragile 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 World War One, came into being in the first place.
For further information please contact Unite senior communications officer Shaun Noble on 07768 693940.
- *Unite surveyed farmers who employed rural workers. These famers were individual members of the NFU. Some 75 percent of those surveyed told us that they did not want responsibility for negotiating their employees wages.
- 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.