Plans to scrap the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), which fixes minimum rates for 140,000 farm workers, is a Government assault on working people, according to the union Unite.
News that the system, dating back to the First World War, could be abolished came in October, followed by a month-long consultation period – not long enough, said Unite. But the Government and farmers say the board is outdated and unnecessary. Most farm workers are paid much more than the rate set, says the Government. And the creation of the National Minimum Wage for all workers makes it redundant.
Unite claims the majority of responses to the consultation were in favour of the AWB's retention, though the Government refused to allow access to them, despite repeated requests.
The union's general secretary Len McCluskey said: "If the case for scrapping the board, which has served generations of rural workers and their communities, is so compelling, the Government should publish the evidence. Its reluctance to do so suggests this is another shameful assault on workers for which there is no evidence base."
But Farming Minister David Heath described the board as "outdated and bureaucratic" and said similar boards in other industrial sectors had been abolished 20 years ago.
The plans to scrap the board were added as an amendment to the Department for Business Industry and Skill's Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill currently going through Parliament.
Mr Heath said: "Scrapping these rules will significantly reduce burdens to farmers while keeping workers extremely well protected."
He said research showed that, in line with the Government's work to reduce bureaucracy in the food and farming industry, farmers would save significant time, effort and costs in no longer meeting two sets of legislation. This would lead to a more flexible market and make it far easier for employees to receive annual salaries, rather than hourly wages, in line with modern personal finance arrangements.
The AWB sets minimum wage rates for six categories of agricultural workers. Under it, the current minimum wage is 2p higher than the National Minimum Wage, but most workers already receive pay well above the wage minimums.
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has consistently called for the abolition of the board, which it says has forced a one-size-fits-all approach on the industry.
NFU acting regional director in the South West, Andrew Butler, said: "The AWB has now been superseded by modern developments. This makes the decision to abolish it right and proper."