NFU Scotland is calling for abolition of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board (SAWB) and for agricultural workers' pay and conditions to be determined under general employment law. Much of the media is reporting the position of the National Farmers Union (an employers’ association and not to be confused with a genuine employees union). UNITE is the union representing the interests of agricultural workers. It has told the Scottish government that compromising the powers of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board (SAWB) would start a race to the bottom on workers’ wages, rights and safety across the rural economy.
Scottish agricultural workers are not directly comparable to other workers in Scottish industry. Whilst other sizable groups can enter into collective bargaining agreements on a workplace or individual company basis, farm workers cannot, in the vast majority of cases, meet the threshold for statutory trade union recognition rights. Previous statics have illustrated that of the 6,632 holdings in Scotland employing full-time employees, only 176 employ seven or more workers.
The success of the SAWB can be seen in relation to an employer who forced mainly migrant workers to work 39 hours over 4 days under one contract of employment and a further 39 hours over 3 days on another. Using different employer names for each contract, this employer was not only breaching the wages order but also the Working Time Regulations. These workers were not paid for the overtime they had clearly worked; they only ever received plain time, and not at the minimum amount set by the board, nor even the national minimum wage. The workers had to pay for compulsory transport to work when the company moved them to another site in an attempt to avoid paying the “over 26 weeks” SAWB rate. They were also forced to continue working into late evening as the compulsory use of company transport meant having to wait until that transport was available. The SAWB and its inspectorate put an end to this blatant exploitation – but without a strong SAWB, such examples could arise again.
The Scottish Government has itself previously stated the following: “we are not aware of any other body in Scotland that would monitor the employment of foreign labour through agencies.' In 2012 Scotland accounted for the third highest proportion of workers in the UK on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. There is also evidence that much of the seasonal labour supply into horticulture is informal or irregular. A report by the Scottish Government (2009) entitled The Experience of Rural Poverty stated that the nature of employment in rural areas (seasonal, agricultural) means that 'many migrant workers' face unemployment and, in some cases, homelessness at certain times of the year. The obstacles that exist for rural workers in general are aggravated for migrant workers due to language difficulties, lack of information on and awareness of employment rights, indebtedness to agencies or traffickers, and physical and social isolation.
In October 2013, as part of the deregulatory and austerity agenda pursued by the Conservative-led UK Government, the Agricultural Wages Board, after more than 60 years of pay protection for 140,000 agricultural workers, was abolished in England. The UK Government’s own figures estimate that farm workers will lose more than £258 million over 10 years in lost pay, sick pay and holiday entitlement. As a consequence, millions of pounds will be taken away from rural families, communities, shops, businesses, and services. There is also concern that supermarkets – when they know farm businesses are paying less in wages - will drop the prices that they are prepared to pay for agricultural produce, detrimentally affecting employers as well as employees.
A key problem now occurring, as predicted by the current Cabinet Secretary, is that individual workers are having to negotiate face to face with their employer on pay. In a survey by Unite, the vast majority of farming employers in England and Wales - some 75% – did not want to be charged with undertaking wage bargaining. They are heavily dependent on their employees and do not want the tension that comes with imposing wage deals. Many farmers valued the AWB mechanism for setting clear and straightforward rates of pay and conditions and are now very concerned about the prospect of having to negotiate with the workers they depend on.
United We Bargain - Divided We Beg