The Prime Minister has been warned that the Government could be acting unlawfully in its "unseemly haste" to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB).
More than 150,000 workers rely on the AWB to fix their income annually, including over 18,000 in the South West region.
Unite, the country's largest union, is calling on David Cameron to extend the four-week consultation period – due to close next Monday – until January 21, so that all interested organisations can have a "proper opportunity" to make the case for the AWB's retention. The AWB currently is responsible for £140 million in farm workers' wages.
But farmer organisations say the AWB is an outdated anachronism – and that in any case the vast majority of farm workers earn more than the basic payments laid down by the AWB.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey said: "Our legal advisers are reviewing the extent to which the Government's approach to this consultation has been lawful."
While the Government's support for the living wage was to be welcomed, it could not be that while Number 10 promotes action to improve incomes, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was rushing through consultation on proposals that would "destroy rural wages", he said.
Unite believes that the Government is failing in its duty of care to the historic agricultural workforce, which has created one of the most efficient agricultural economies in the developed world. And that if the AWB is abolished, this will accelerate the slide into rural poverty.
Mr McCluskey added: "What is happening with the consultation on the future of the AWB is anti-democratic. Thousands of rural workers and stakeholder organisations are being locked out of the consultation to the certain detriment of the people most impacted by any abolition.
"Concerns have been expressed to Unite by some civil society groups that their views have not been sought and that the consultees draw heavily from the large employers and retailers. For instance, why are the views of the agricultural colleges not being sought?"
Unite has pointed out that, while the Westminster Government wanted to abolish the AWB in England and Wales, the devolved governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland were keeping their AWBs and there was a commitment by the Welsh Government to retain its AWB. Mr McCluskey stressed Unite was not against the modernisation of the AWB, but that rural communities were economically fragile, where low wages were the norm – and to afford some protection against rural poverty was the reason that the AWB, which has its origins in the First World War, came into being in the first place.