Unite challenges plans to abolish NI agricultural wages board

Unite: Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots must clarify whether his decision to abolish AWB is a conflict of interest

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Agriculture Minister Poots, a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, has been challenged by Unite over compliance with the Ministerial Code of Conduct over his decision to deliver on longstanding UFU priority – abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) in Northern Ireland.

Unite has warned that the abolition of AWB will give the green light to employers exploiting highly vulnerable agricultural workers, many of whom are migrant workers.

Unite regional officer Sean McKeever, explained that at a meeting of the body at the end of last week, his union had called on the Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots to clarify that his proposal to abolish the AWB in Northern Ireland was not a breach of the Ministerial Code of conduct.

“At last Friday’s meeting of the Agricultural Wages Board representatives of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, who sit on the body and represent the employers’ side, once again confirmed their longstanding demand for the body’s abolition,” Keever said. “The representative of Unite the union responded by questioning how Agriculture Minister Edwin Poot’s decision to abolish the body was not therefore a potential conflict of interest – given his membership of the UFU. Mr Poots must now explain how his intervention on this matter is not a breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct.

“The Agricultural Wages Board has existed in one form or another since 1939 and has been recognised as playing a vital role by governments of every persuasion since that time,” Keever continued. Despite the closure of this body by the Tories in England, regional governments in Wales and Scotland see the need for its retention in those nations – why not here in Northern Ireland?

“There is a particular need for a collective bargaining body covering agricultural field workers,” he added. “There is a strategically vital need to attract workers to ensure food protection, particularly post-Brexit; agriculture is a sector which receives huge amounts of public funds; and one in which it is inherently difficult for unions to organise given the scattered distribution of workers and the prevalence of temporary and part-time working. Agricultural field workers need particular protections.

“The AWB doesn’t just set a minimum wage for agricultural field workers, but provides basic guarantees on breaks, time off and guarantees overtime rates,” Keever went on to say. “This is of vital importance in countering exploitation – especially as many are migrant workers with little other protection.

“We are fearful that the abolition of the AWB will give the green light to rapacious employers to ratchet further the exploitation of agricultural field workers,” he noted. “We are committed to fight the abolition of this body which provides last ditch protection against the exploitation of vulnerable agricultural workers, which all too often includes the practice of trafficking and modern day slavery.

“Unite has written to the leaders of all political parties to request that they signal their intent to oppose this move. As yet, we haven’t had a reply from any of them. We are calling on them to come off the fence on this issue and stand behind the agricultural field workers’ in their fight for basic protections.”

By Donal O’Cofaigh

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