Hebden Royd Councillor Jonathan Timbers reports on why the Council wants fair farm wages and a proper career structure for farm workers.
In a post on the Incredible Edible Mytholm blog, there is a photo of Cllr Tony Hodgins and me, looking deadly earnest. It was taken when we were listening to a talk about the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), which at the time the Tory-Lib Dem coalition were proposing in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.
Both Tony and I were concerned by what we heard. The AWB did much more than police the minimum wage in the agricultural sector; it helped set terms and conditions for farm workers so that they could enjoy wages that rose according to experience and training. In abolishing the AWB (as it has now done), the coalition government has effectively abolished that career structure, and left farm workers at the mercy of market forces, just at a time when the UK is expecting a large influx of migrant workers from the EU. Whilst many good employers – like those in the Calder Valley – will want to maintain proper rewards for their staff, to retain loyalty and talent, others (whom the speaker, Charlie Clutterbuck, referred to as ‘the plantation owners’) may take advantage of the poverty of the migrants to undermine a career structure which helps sustain employment in food production. Inevitably, ‘market forces’ (so often a euphemism for the strong bullying the weak) will put pressure on good employers, who will be undercut by bad ones.
As a result of the talk, as a Labour member, I proposed that Hebden Royd Town Council write to Craig Whittaker MP, expressing its concerns and regretting his support for the abolition of the AWB. My motion was seconded by Tony Hodgins. As he is a Liberal Democrat, his support was welcome, because he was effectively raising questions about his own government. Other Liberal Democrats joined with the Labour group as well, which, in my view, was a victory for compassion over sectional interest.
We have now received a response from Craig, and to be fair he seems to have taken our letter very seriously. He even goes as far as to regret the fact that the issue was not properly discussed in Parliament until the Labour Party forced the matter. Unfortunately, he reiterates his support for the change, which he claims ‘will enable the industry to adopt flexible working practices’. However, he does go on to express what is, on the face of it, a surprisingly pro-EU stance, when he says that the government has changed the way that Common Agricultural Policy funding can be applied, to support farmers who enhance the environment thereby ‘providing public good for which there is no market mechanism’. I wonder if this stance will change if UKIP decides to stand in Calder Valley in 2015.
The Labour Party is currently considering proposals to extend regulation into low-waged sectors to ensure that the national minimum wage is properly policed, and career structures can be sustained in key industries, like agriculture. If it does so (and I am confident that it will), this will be an important commitment. It is vital for the future of the UK that agricultural work is a viable career option.