Axe for wages board welcomed but union warns of strike action

The NFU, HTA and growers have welcomed Defra's abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), but union Unite has predicted worker unrest.

The move has come as part of environment secretary Caroline Spelman's reformation of 30 of Defra's 90 arm's-length bodies via the Public Bodies Reform Bill, which is likely to come into force in 2011.

Unite agriculture secretary Ian Waddell said the union would target weak employers to win even higher pay rises, adding: "There is a real prospect of agricultural strikes becoming the norm for the first time since the 19th century." Agriculture and horticulture workers in England and Wales will now come under the national minimum wage (NMW).

HTA director-general David Gwyther said: "We are delighted that this announcement confirms the assurances that we were given in our meetings with opposition ministers prior to the election.

"The abolition of the AWB is a critical decision in helping to ensure the competitiveness of an industry that has many challenges in competing in the global market. The previous rationale for a wages board no longer exists as other legislation has caught up, making the AWB an unwanted anomaly."

NFU chief horticulture adviser Phil Hudson said supporting the move "goes without saying as we have lobbied for its abolition for some years now".

Hayloft Plants' Derek Jarman, who is on the AWB negotiation board, said: "The abolition of the AWB is long overdue and will be much appreciated by horticultural growers and farmers. It has been a nonsense that the low-margin horticultural producers have been bound by the complicated and onerous AWB while the high-margin horticultural retailers haven't.

"It must be remembered that we all work in a marketplace and have to compete for labour with other employers. To retain good workers we have to remunerate them appropriately. For less scrupulous employers, their employees are protected by the NMW."

Spelman said: "The effective delivery of public services is essential and I am committed to increasing the transparency and accountability of Defra's public bodies and to reducing their numbers and costs. Times have changed since many of these bodies were set up and much of what they do is now everyday Government business."

The AWB, the 15 agricultural wages committees and the 16 agricultural dwelling house advisory committees were established by the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 and are affiliated to Defra. The Committee on Agricultural Valuation was established by the Agricultural Holdings Act in 1986.

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