Less than a year ago, the Scottish government did the right thing and decided to retain its Agricultural Wages Board (SAWB) which sets minimum wages and terms and conditions for farm workers.
Minimum wage rates are higher than the National Minimum Wage – effective from October 1, farmworkers in Scotland, regardless of age are paid at least £7.24 an hour after 26 weeks continuous employment. For all other workers, the current National Living Wage is set at £7.20 only for those 25 and older, and is substantially lower for those under 25.
The SAWB was under threat as it underwent its periodic review last year – its future hung in the balance under the shadow of England banning its own board a scant two years ago and under pressure from bosses’ groups such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) Scotland which claimed that it was no longer needed.
But in December 2015 the Scottish government roundly rejected the NFU’s logic and reaffirmed the importance it played in protecting agricultural workers, who remain among the most exploited workers in Scotland, and arguably in the wider UK and indeed even the rest of the world.
Now, however, the NFU is again reiterating an argument it has already lost.
In a joint statement released on Tuesday (September 20) NFU Scotland and Scottish Land & Estates noted that the SAWB should be abolished.
“While the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board used to serve a valuable purpose, it is now no longer required,” the statement read. “It is an unnecessary extra layer of bureaucracy, which can lead to confusion for both employers and employees.”
The statement claimed that with the introduction of the new National Living Wage (NLW) “there is no longer a need for agriculture to be singled out as the only industry with a Board that sets minimum rates of pay.”
“Discussions on rates of pay are best left to individual employers and the employees that work for them,” the statement added.
But Unite stands firm against this reasoning.
Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty said that he was “astonished at this statement from NFU Scotland and Scottish Land & Estates.”
“The future of the Board was examined thoroughly by the Scottish Parliament as recently as 2015 – and MSPs and ministers agreed with us that it was vital to the protection of the interests of agricultural workers,” he argued.
“The Board acts as a vehicle for us to continually push for better pay for low-paid agricultural workers,” Rafferty added. “We can understand why employers might want to abolish it – because they could then easily get away with just paying the National Minimum Wage.
“But we don’t believe that’s good enough. Good employers realise the value of their workers and pay a fair rate for the job. That’s good for them, and it’s good for our members.
Research conducted by Unite has shown just what happens when a wages board such as the SAWB is abolished – it happened in England and the results were devastating.
A Unite survey found that less than a year after the AWB in England was done away with, the majority of agricultural workers who were surveyed had not received a pay rise — a rise they all would have gotten had the Board not been scrapped.
And directly contradicting what NFU Scotland has suggested if the Board is abolished, a full 82 per cent of those workers in England who did receive a pay rise did not experience the so-called “discussions on rates of pay” which the NFU said are “best left to individual employers and the employees that work for them.”
On the contrary – these pay rises were unilaterally imposed without negotiation.
More than just pay
This is the reality of being an agricultural worker in the UK – they’re simply more vulnerable than most low-paid workers in other industries. They work in a sector with the greatest number of workplace accidents and deaths annually, and the prevalence of seasonal work means in certain parts of the year they’re likely to experience hunger and homelessness. The fact that many farmworkers are foreign migrants means also that they will often not fully know their rights.
It is these realities that the SAWB hopes to address because beyond ensuring that farm workers are adequately paid, Rafferty highlighted, the Board is “also about holiday entitlement and other conditions of employment”.
“Without the Board, there would be no mechanism to work with employers to improve the conditions of their workers,” he said.
This fact bears out in the research – the Unite survey of agricultural workers in England found that after the AWB there was abolished, many reported that entitlements such as sick pay were withdrawn. Some reported having to work more hours before their overtime rate kicked in, and many breaches of TUPE were also found.
“The Scottish Agricultural Wages Board plays an important role and employers should work with it, instead of trying to undermine it,” Rafferty added.
Find out more about the SAWB and why it’s so critical in securing a decent future for Scotland’s agricultural workers here.