Farm workers in Wales celebrated on Friday (February 26) as they received a six per cent pay rise, after the Welsh government signed off on an historic Order enabling it to set its own minimum rates.
After having their pay frozen for the last three years, farm workers in Wales will receive a 2 per cent wage hike for every year they missed out.
It’s estimated that roughly 13,000 agricultural workers will benefit from the pay rise, which applies to workers in grades 2 through 6, young workers of compulsory school age and apprentices.
Grade 1 workers will not receive a pay rise because their pay has kept in line with the National Minimum Wage (NMW) since 2012. Still, their pay will be 2p greater than the NMW, which is now £6.70 per hour.
The pay rise also amounts to a historic moment for the Wales – it’s the first rate rise that the government implemented since it won a Supreme Court battle against the UK coalition government in 2014 that gave it the right to set its own minimum rates for farm workers.
The court battle came a year before the UK government banned the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), which had helped ensure sustainable wages for farm workers in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland.
The current interim Order that set the latest wage rates for farmworkers in Wales will be replaced by an independent Agricultural Advisory Panel, whose members are now being selected and will include representation from Unite.
The panel, which should be fully operational sometime this year, will be responsible for preparing draft wages for farmworkers and will also advise ministers on agricultural matters.
Welsh Assembly member Mick Antoniw hailed the wage hike and the Supreme Court ruling that allowed it to become a reality.
“Once the Advisory Panel is up and running further [wage] increases are likely to follow,” he said.
“It has shown that we can use our powers imaginatively and innovatively to achieve real change and benefits for low paid workers,” Antoniw added. “However, unexpectedly, the greatest impact the legislation is having is on the Welsh devolution settlement and on UK legislation.”
Antoniw explained that the Supreme Court decision set an historic precedent which will likely mean that Wales will be able to, for example, successfully oppose the trade union bill.
“By intruding into the area of local government which is devolved, the [trade union] Bill which purports to be an employment bill, can be overturned by the Welsh Government relying on the Agriculture Sector judgment,” he noted.
“The recently leaked legal advice from the UK government confirms that their case against the Welsh government is very weak. The Wales TUC‘s own legal advice from a leading Queen’s Counsel also confirms this.”
Unite joint chair for the food, drink and agriculture sector Steve Leniec welcomed the news but highlighted that the dissolution of the AWB has meant farmworkers in England would continue to suffer.
“While this is a welcome announcement for Welsh farmworkers, their six per cent pay rise represents just how far agricultural workers in England have fallen behind,” Leniec said.
Leniec explained that after the abolishment of the AWB in England, many agricultural workers there have struggled to get by on largely frozen wages.
“It’s also worth noting that the terms and conditions that the AWB protected have been eroded too – we’ve seen an erosion in holiday pay for workers as well as in sick pay,” he said. “The AWB set minimum standards for accommodation, too.
“Without the AWB – and with only the Gangmasters Licencing Authority to oversee minimum standards for housing farmworkers – this has no doubt had a large impact on migrant workers, who are especially at risk of exploitation.”
Unite national officer Julia Long agreed.
“On the one hand, this is fantastic result for all the farm and horticultural workers in Wales,” she said. “It will send a strong message to those workers that the Welsh government has faith in their industry and the work they do. On the other hand, it’s sad that England’s workers are still being ignored and that a majority have had no pay increase since this government abolished the AWB.”
A Farmer’s Guardian survey published last year showed widespread alarm about of the effect the AWB’s abolishment in England.
One in three farmworkers surveyed said they had experienced a decline in their wages since the dissolution of the AWB, while one in three respondents also said they felt compelled to leave the industry soon.
And a full 70 per cent reported that the abolishment of the wages board would have a negative impact on the agricultural industry as a whole.
Unite secretary for Wales Andy Richards hailed last week’s pay result as a major advance for the long-term future of agriculture in Wales.
“Unite Wales recognises the significant challenges that our rural communities continue to face,” he said. “Last week’s new Order is a big step forward in the right direction for agriculture in Wales. We know that a well-trained and motivated workforce is key to ensuring long term viability.
“The new Agricultural Wages (Wales) Order not only provides fair pay, it helps to develop the training and career structure that the agricultural sector needs if it is to compete effectively in the world market,” he added.
But Richards highlighted the damaging role the UK government played as it moved to abolish the original AWB that once applied to all workers in Britain.
“In another attack on ordinary rural families, the UK government abolished the Agricultural Wages Board which set and protected the wages of agricultural workers,” he said.
“Let us never forget that the UK government challenged this law in the Supreme Court as they sought to deny agricultural workers this valued protection.”