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Anger over rural wage as East Anglia farm workers join Westminster protest

PUBLISHED: 09:52 12 November 2012 | UPDATED: 10:29 12 November 2012

Edingthorpe; Blacksmith, Michael Ward is campaigning against the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board and has been collecting signatures in North Walsham

Edingthorpe; Blacksmith, Michael Ward is campaigning against the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board and has been collecting signatures in North Walsham

Archant

Farm workers in East Anglia could become victims of poor pay and exploitation – that was the warning from trade unionists as rural workers from across the country descend on Westminster today to protest against the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB).

The government revealed its plan to axe the agency in July last year – with opponents saying casual workers could lose up to £140m from their wages over 10 years and £100m from annual leave payment.

Workers and trade union officials are due to set up camp outside Parliament today with a tractor and a band called Farmageddon to mark the final day of a four-week consultation on the proposal.

Mike Ward, Norfolk’s agricultural trade group secretary for Unite, said abolishing the AWB would put too much power in the hands of farmers and discourage young people from a career in agriculture.

The 77-year-old blacksmith, from Edingthorpe, near North Walsham, is joining the London protest after working on farms for decades.

He said: “I have been campaigning against abolition of the AWB for over a year. The reason it is important is that most farmers don’t have that many workers, and those workers tend to live in the same community as the farmer and the farm itself. It makes it difficult for workers to debate their wages and conditions with someone who you go to church with or see within the community.

“It is also going to affect younger people coming into agriculture. It is not the type of industry parents would advise their children to go into, and that will get worse if they don’t see the pay structure of the AWB showing them how they can progress within the industry.

“Without the AWB, the farmer can pay whatever he can get away with, making it difficult for workers to get better conditions.”

According to figures from the House of Commons Library, there are 1,170 farmworkers in Broadland, 960 in Mid Norfolk, 770 in North Norfolk, 930 in South Norfolk, 800 in North West Norfolk and 2,390 in South West Norfolk. Across the East of England, there are 24,270 in total.

At present all casual farm workers in England and Wales have their pay set by the AWB, established in 1924 after the bitter Norfolk farm workers’ strike.

Julia Long, Unite national officer for rural and agricultural workers, said: “Some £140m in wages will now be kept by employers and not by those who earned it and who spend it in rural communities.

“It is a senseless act by a government which is simply not on the side of either working people or our countryside.”

The government argues farm workers will be protected by the National Minimum Wage if the AWB is axed.

Speaking about the plans last month, farming minister David Heath said: “Agricultural wages boards were designed almost 100 years ago when conditions were very different to the modern age and there was little to protect workers from unscrupulous employers.

“Now we have the National Minimum Wage and other employment protections, it’s about time we got rid of a burdensome anomaly.”

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