Interview - Ian Waddell, Unite National Officer for rural, agriculture and allied workers

As far as industrial relations are concerned, there could be testing times ahead in the horticulture industry.

Ian Waddell, Unite National Officer for rural, agriculture and allied workers
Ian Waddell, Unite National Officer for rural, agriculture and allied workers

The Conservatives, who are the senior partner in the Government coalition, are anxious to cut bureaucracy and to encourage free bargaining. But they are also committed to reducing reliance on immigration. To some critics, this seems like a recipe for strikes and labour disputes.

Ian Waddell, the Unite national officer for rural, agriculture and allied workers, has the job of standing up for the workforce. He accepts that he might have a fight on his hands. "We will seek to organise and drive up wages. If we end up having strikes for the first time in many years, it could be the result of the policies of the Government and the NFU."

Waddell took over the agricultural brief in April. Before that he had spent five years looking after Unite's members in the chemical, oil and aerospace industries. He explains: "My expertise is in negotiating and dealing with employers. I've been full-time union officer for 13 years. My work has been in the area of employment relations."

Waddell was born in Coventry but has always been more at home in the countryside. He graduated from Crewe & Alsager College with a degree in environmental science and lives in the Peak District, in Derbyshire, where he indulges his passion for marathon running.

He is finding his new role equally stimulating. "It's wonderful work, great people. The only problem is that my office is in London because I have to meet a lot of Government officials. But I enjoy going around the country and meeting our members at agricultural events and shows."

He predicts that Government policies will hit the countryside disproportionately - many cuts will affect public sector employees, many of whom work in rural localities. Services such as village schools and libraries will also be hit. He suggests that Unite could be at the forefront in defending the countryside.

One of his most pressing concerns is the recent abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) - a move that was backed by the NFU, the HTA and other industry bodies. Some critics have suggested that the AWB achieves nothing because rural workers are protected by minimum wage legislation. Waddell, however, believes such criticisms ignore the important work that was being done by the board. "The AWB governs sick pay, pay structures and qualifications. It has a very broad role. The national minimum wage can't replace it."

He believes that without the AWB, workers will feel extremely vulnerable. "Agricultural labourers will be flocking to join the union - the abolition of the AWB will make industrial disputes far more likely," he warns. Unless these issues are resolved, agricultural strikes could soon "become the norm for the first time since the 19th century".

Waddell is disappointed by the Government's approach to the unions. He feels the coalition has failed to engage with the unions on important issues. He claims that agriculture and food minister Jim Paice has ignored approaches from Unite to discuss the future of the AWB. "I only got a phone call at 11am, two hours after the announcement was made. I don't think this bodes well for our relationship with the Government.

"You can only judge the Government on the actions it takes, and our attempts to engage in constructive debate have been simply ignored." He would like to see the AWB modernised, rather than scrapped. "We are planning a vigorous campaign to oppose the abolition," he reveals.

Unite hopes to avoid any direct confrontation with employers or Government. Waddell envisages working closely with some unlikely partners. In particular, he would like to work with the Countryside Alliance - often portrayed as the mouthpiece of the landed gentry - and with farmers. "Having a skilled, prosperous, rural workforce is in their long-term interest," he insists.

He also believes that the union should work with the supermarkets to ensure a reasonable return for growers and reasonable wages for agricultural workers. "Supermarkets are very conscious of their brands. If we can persuade people to shop at places that treat their suppliers well, there is a huge potential to improve conditions. This is something that can be achieved with fresh produce."

There are other matters in Waddell's in-tray. His predecessor, Chris Kaufman, promised to tackle the RHS over its decision to make around 100 staff redundant. "I haven't forgotten this," adds Waddell. "We fully intend to get involved, but in the long-term we want a relationship where we respect each other."

Waddell certainly has his work cut out. He takes over his new job at a time when there is a new Government, a raft of new policies and some horrific expenditure cuts on the horizon. If he can negotiate his way through these problems without a series of damaging strikes, he will surely earn the respect of the industry.

CV

1980s: Environmental science degree, Crewe & Alsager College

2005-10: Unite officer, chemical, oil and aerospace industries

2010 to date: Unite national officer for rural, agriculture and allied workers


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