The Agricultural Wages Board was the only wages board to survive the abolition of wage regulation by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. This was because even the Thatcherites recognised how "sweated" agricultural work was, namely, it was exceedingly low paid, dirty, dangerous and often seasonal, and thus merited some basic form of regulation. It has now been abolished.
The national minimum wage covers only minimum hourly pay rates (categorised by age) and nothing else.But under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948, the AWB enforces much more through a legal instrument called an agricultural wages order. So among the terms of the orders – which are reviewed and raised annually – is a raft of allowances including:
• Accommodation (where living at or on the work premises is necessary)
• Overtime (at time and a half)
• Sick pay
• Food and care for dogs (where a dog is needed to do the work)
• Rest breaks of 30 minutes for every five and a half hours of work
• Bad weather payments (so that workers are not penalised for not being able to work because of the weather)
On top of this, the orders set minimum hour wages by grade rather than just by age. So the 2009-2010 national minimum wage is £5.80 for an adult over 21 years of age while the rates for those above compulsory school age range from £5.81 to £8.64 under the AWB. For 2010-2011, the national minimum wage will rise to £5.93 while those in agriculture are due to rise to between £5.95 and £8.88.
Furthermore, the method of enforcement is far more lax under the national minimum wage than the AWB, and there are still loopholes by which employers can avoid paying the minimum wage.
With market forces now more fully unleashed, farmers will do away with many of the compulsory terms and conditions that the AWB provided for. They may do this because they are greedy and capricious. If they are not, they may still do it because gangmasters (despite some minimal regulation) can provide workers more cheaply than they can or because the big buyers of agricultural produce such as Tesco decide to ask for ever tougher terms in supply contracts.
The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board will be damaging to the industry, All-Party Parliamentary Gardening & Horticulture Group (APPGHG) secretary Brian Donohoe has warned. "People on the lowest wages will suffer..."
The decision does not affect the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board, with a government spokesperson stating: "The Scottish Government reviewed SAWB as recently as last year and decided to retain it, with a further review in 2011. This position is unaffected by Defra's decision to abolish the AWB in England and Wales."