Welsh government passes bill to retain the functions of the abolished AWB
NewsThursday 18 July 2013
Emergency legislation has been passed by AMs to protect the wages of more than 13,000 farm workers in Wales.
After the UK government abolished the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) in June, Welsh ministers decided to introduce this new bill to retain the functions of the board in Wales.
Alun Davies, the Rural Affairs Minister, said that the bill would help to ensure that Welsh agriculture would have a prosperous future.
However, the Conservatives have criticised Davies for showing “contempt” for the process of scrutinising legislation.
The Welsh government is maintaining that the AWB was central to the efficient operation of an industry made up of small farms, with large numbers of seasonal and casual workers working long hours and performing “highly physical and dangerous tasks”.
The board oversaw six pay grades relating to workers skills, qualifications, experience and their level of responsibility.
All of these pay levels ended up being set higher than the statutory minimum wage, which is currently £6.31 for workers aged 21 and over.
Mr Davies spoke to the BBC and he said that the bill provided “continuity of a statutory regime that is well-known and respected by the sector - a regime that acknowledges the distinctiveness of Welsh agriculture, supports skill development and encourages new entrants into the industry.
"Agriculture is a fundamental part of Wales' economy, identity and rural heritage," he said.
"I am very pleased that we have passed a bill that will strengthen our agricultural industry and protect our rural communities throughout Wales."
Antoinette Sandbach, the Shadow Rural Affairs Minister, spoke out and said that Mr Davies had had "years and months to bring forward this legislation" and had instead chosen to do so using an emergency procedure over 24 hours.
She also accused him of showing “contempt” for those people who are involved in scrutinising the legislation, as well as the process itself.
Plaid Cymru AM Jocelyn Davies condemned Labour AMs for not backing her amendment to ban zero-hours contracts in agriculture.
She told the BBC: "Senior Labour figures and trade unions have condemned zero-hours contracts in recent months, branding them exploitative and a throwback to the Victorian era.
"Yet when Labour had the chance to outlaw them in the agricultural sector, as they did today, they decided to betray low-paid workers instead."
Farming unions have taken opposing views on whether the AWB was needed.
The Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) has described it as a "vital means of persuading high calibre people to remain in or enter the industry”.
However, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has backed the decision to abolish the AWB, saying that it was an outdated board and its removal was necessary.
The AWB was a forum for employer and employee representatives in Engalnd and Wales to decide on pay and conditions for the last 65 years.
The Welsh government had been opposed the abolition, however, Whitehall told the Welsh officials that it was not a devolved matter, since it was mainly about non-devolved employment issues rather than agriculture.
So, ministers in Wales have brought forward an emergency bill to retain the functions of the AWB insisting that it was central to their farming industry.
Opposition AMs have criticised the speed with which the legislation went through the Senedd, saying procedure was being abused by ministers.
But they welcomed the Welsh government's decision to allow the panel to propose wage levels, rather than simply advising the rural affairs minister on them.
Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own wages board.
Picture: Thadd Selden