Pressure on Somerton and Frome Lib Dem MP as Labour members step up the fight against rural poverty

Saturday, 13 April 2013
Alwyn Dow, Labour candidate for Mendip Central and East lobbying  Lib Dem MP David Heath
Alwyn Dow, Labour candidate for Mendip Central and East lobbying Lib Dem MP David Heath

Somerton and Frome Labour Party members joined with members of the UNITE union to lobby their MP, the Liberal Democrat minister for agriculture and food David Heath , now increasingly under pressure as farm workers intensify their campaign in the run-up to MPs voting on the future of the Agricultural Wages Board.

Unite activists are campaigning for the Agricultural Wages Board’s retention, to protect the incomes of 150,000 agricultural workers. Coalition minister, Heath, was lobbied at his constituency surgery which was  held in The Library, Justice Lane, Frome..

Unite will be mounting an intensive lobbying campaign in the run-up to the crucial Commons vote on the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform bill on 16 April – and points out that David Heath, the MP for Somerton and Frome, had previously expressed his support for the Agricultural Wages Board’s retention.

‘Abolition will drive down workers wages to poverty levels’

Unite national officer for agriculture Julia Long said: “David Heath is being lobbied as he is responsible for driving through the proposed abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, having previously supported for it. The crunch vote on the Agricultural Wages Board is on Tuesday– when MPs vote on whether to maintain the board which has been effective in the last 65 years in protecting the incomes of some of the lowest paid workers in the country. Unite will be campaigning strongly in the run-up to the vote to retain the Agricultural Wages Board. Supermarkets and the growers, who supply them, are behind the AWB’s abolition proposal as they want to drive down workers’ wages to poverty levels.”

Unite believes that abolition could encourage suspect practices and herald poverty-level wages.It says the board is valuable to employers as well as employees, and says many farmers wrote in favour of keeping it during consultation and that overall more than 60 per cent of responses were in favour of keeping the board.

The International Food Union fears that children could be exploited if the board is abolished. The board has fixed minimum pay rates for children of compulsory school age, and higher rates of pay for the over-16s than the National Minimum Wage.

‘casual workers will be on reduced terms and conditions’

Labour candidate for Frome North. Catherine Richardson, at the protest offering workers an alternative solution to Lib Dem broken promises
Labour candidate for Frome North. Catherine Richardson, at the protest offering workers an alternative solution to Lib Dem broken promises

The amendment to the Bill would abolish the board – which covers England and Wales – and related regional committees in England. The Government maintains that changes to the National Minimum Wage Act, which the amendment would also approve, would ensure that agricultural workers are protected once the agricultural minimum wage regime is abolished.

Steve Leniec, a tractor driver who chairs Unite’s committee for agricultural workers, was one of the members who met Mr Heath. He said  “He gave us the same answer that he has given before, that the National Minimum Wage and gangmasters’ licensing will ensure all is well. He recognises the issue but he has faith in the industry – but casual workers will be on reduced terms and conditions.”

If the amendment is approved agricultural workers will come within the scope of the National Minimum Wage from October 1.

Pressure on the Lib Dems is Nationwide  of course and  the president of the Liberal Democrats, Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron was also lobbied as the Unite Union continued to warn that abolition will bring poverty wages to the countryside as a result of a  retrograde step being promoted by their coalition partners.