Shame has never been the landed gentry’s strong point. They were out in force in the House of Lords this week to vote in favour of abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board that sets minimum conditions for over 150,000 rural labourers. The economy may be tanking and the cost of living rocketing but the answer to every question the government sets itself seems to be slashing workers’ rights and pay.
The Agricultural Wages Board is Britain’s last remaining wages council, providing pay protection for agricultural workers, including those living in tied housing. Abolition risks sucking millions out of local rural economies at a time when the village post office and local businesses need workers’ spending power to survive.
The government went full steam ahead to abolish the board, despite a majority of those who responded to a consultation supporting its retention. And, surprise surprise, the Farming Regulation Task Force that recommended abolition included representatives of supermarket chains but not a single workers’ representative. The National Farmers Union must be living in a dream world if it thinks it its members will benefit from freedom to cut workers’ pay. Big supermarkets call the shots in the food industry and, if the wages floor is stripped away, they will demand farmers lower their prices.
Abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board is a serious attack not just on some of the most vulnerable workers in the country but on whole rural communities. Let’s be clear, driving down wages does not create jobs, it just makes workers and their families poorer.
The evidence following the abolition of other wage councils in the 1990s is that wages will fall. Now farm workers face the same fate. Highly skilled workers will now see their pay threatened with overtime rates disappearing, holidays reduced and sick pay at risk. Protection in their tied homes will be reduced and rents increased. Getting rid of this body is an act of political spite for which the lowest earners in some of the toughest jobs will pay the price.
Instead of abolition, we should not just have wages protection in agriculture, but look at establishing modern wages councils for other industries too. Those industries that can afford to pay more than the national minimum wage should do so. Just like the Low Pay Commission they would involve employer, union and expert voices.
After all, the economy is facing two crises; economic stagnation and falling living standards. That’s why we need action to boost wages for low to medium earners and wages led growth. There is an alternative to falling living standards, to services slashed to the bone and to benefit cuts that are plunging families into poverty – all whilst the richest get a nice fat tax cut. The fact is that the economy will continue to bump along until all workers, not just the top 1%, have more pounds in their pockets to get the economy growing again.
Polling from Unions21 published today highlighted the strength of public support for measures to increase pay at the bottom and curb excessive reward at the top. The findings make very interesting reading; nearly nine in ten people believe the minimum wage isn’t high enough to meet living costs; three quarters said they would be more likely to buy goods or services from a living wage employer; seven in ten support a cap on bonuses. And nearly half believe that centrally set pay rates for different sectors would be fairer.
We know that that there is public support for fair rewards. Voters want a government that’s on the side of the hard pressed working families, not just the well to do. The Chancellor should start with the Budget and this is the message trade unions will be taking to Westminster next week as we join with charities and communities on March 13 to rally for a Budget for jobs, growth and families.
The Government needs to wake up. Britain needs a pay rise.