Where costs are king scant concern is given to the impact on rural life

By Diana Holland, Unite Assistant General Secretary

What is this government’s problem with the countryside?  It tried and failed to sell off the forests and kill off badgers. It’s thrashing around as historic ash trees die.

They don’t like humans much either.  In only days’ time, protections for agricultural workers could be swept away.  Some 154,000 workers face wage cuts and housing insecurity.  The rules that prevent the fields filling with child workers will go.

The Agricultural Wages Board and its attendant protections regarding housing for rural workers have existed since 1947, but their roots go back to 1917 when government understood that the labour force was essential for food security.

For 100 years this consensus has stood.  But in only a few days this historic consensus will be destroyed.

Some 80% of those depending on the AWB to make countryside working viable will fall back to the national minimum wage.  Access to affordable housing will also go, as will the rules governing the age and rate of pay of schoolchildren.  As Polly Toynbee noted, nine year olds are already found crop-picking in Worcestershire; when pay protections go, kids are likely to become more popular employees for the food industry.

So who gains from this mass assault on terms and conditions?  Well certainly not small farmers.  Some 70% of those we in Unite work with tell us that they want to keep the AWB. In tight-knit communities, they do not want to sit opposite their employees, who may only number two or three people that they have known all their lives, to set rates of pay. Community and workplace harmony depends on the AWB benchmark.

Certainly not the workers, who will see, by government’s own assessment, some £140m of their wages, plus millions more in holiday and sick pay entitlement, transfer to employers.

Certainly not government, who by its own admission will only save £50,000 per year by abolishing the AWB.

That leaves big business.  The top twenty paying members of the NFU are big employers. Lower wage costs appeal to them, and they wield immense clout. Doubtless the retailers will stand beside them. Where costs are king scant concern is given to the impact on rural life.

In this insultingly short, four week consultation, Government is asking only those who agree with it what they think.  Consultees are heavy on the turbo-farmers and light on the civic groups such as the WI who understand what poverty wages will do to rural communities.

Our countryside is not there only to service agri-business. What happens when workers simply cannot afford to live in the communities from which they hail?  Will our fields and pack houses be filled with breadline waged, vulnerable workers who are either under 18 or migrants?

This is not some disaster scenario for dramatic purposes.  Food and farming in this country are tough industries.  Workers are more likely to die or be injured working in these sectors than in any other.

As Felicity Lawrence points out, the industries are notorious for worker abuse, encouraged by supply chain pressures and poor enforcement.

When Unite was fighting for gangmaster legislation, organised crime experts told us that criminals were getting out of drug trafficking and getting into people trafficking. Food and farming are key `clients’ because the risks of being caught were lower but the rewards were higher.

The AWB is not an historic relic.  It is the last line of defence for English rural workers (the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly retain their protections, while Wales is fighting Westminster’s attack on their workers).  Its removal is an attack on workers.  It is another austerity kick for our countryside already suffering from transport and service cuts.

We have ten days to defend the AWB.  If badgers and trees can win a reprieve from this government, then so too must men, women and children.

This blog first appeared on LabourList on November 2nd.

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