On my ‘completely inaccurate picture of labour on British farms’: a response to the NFU

The NFU President has responded to my Countryman column about working conditions on UK farms – reproduced here. In a letter in this month’s magazine, Meurig Raymond says that I paint “a completely inaccurate picture of labour on British farms.

“Over 90% of the jobs in the sector are paid above National Minimum Wage – so we are not a low-paying industry. We are also the only UK industry with its own government agency – the GLA [Gangmasters Licencing Authority] – which works with farmers to protect workers and prevent exploitation…. Agriculture is actually leading the way and should be held up as an example of best practice to other sectors of UK industry where labour use is not monitored.”

I am grateful to Meurig Raymond for responding. I am a strong supporter of UK farming will continue to buy British food and, wherever possible, local food. I never buy imported meat and I am boringly obsessive about seasonality.

But it is hard to square Meurig Raymond’s defence with Felicity Lawrence’s reports on British farmers using what amounts to slave labour (the problems in the food processing sector are even worse). A few bad apples? Then let’s hear the condemnation. The NFU’s opposition to the Agricultural Wages Board also undermines its claim to uphold ‘best value’.

My response to the NFU follows. It will appear in the next issue of the Countryman.

In February’s Countryman I wrote about the “real price of cheap food” highlighting the role of badly paid, badly treated migrant workers in producing British food. The President of the National Farmers’ Union says I painted “a completely inaccurate picture of labour on British farms”.

It is good to have a debate, but I cannot accept Meurig Raymond’s line that because “90% of jobs in the sector are paid above the National Minimum Wage,” farming is not a low-paying industry.

One has to be careful with statistics. Does the 90% include subcontracted labour, and labour from subcontractors’ subcontractors? Can huge agri-businesses dependent on gangmasters really keep track of workers’ conditions? And does the NFU even want farmers to be responsible? Its line has been that the agency responsible for preventing exploitation should focus on the providers of labour (the gangmasters), not the users of labour (the farmers). So how can it know that sub-contractors are paying their workers properly?

Farm workers who are directly employed may be paid more than the minimum wage, but the NFU fought hard for the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) for England and Wales. This hit wages, sick pay and working hours, particularly for lower paid farm workers. It is significant that at the end of last year the Scottish Government carried out a Poverty Impact Assessment and decided to retain its AWB.

But I am not attacking farmers, many of whom find themselves in an impossible position. Farming is at the least powerful end of the supply chain, after processors and retailers. British farmers are caught between consumers wanting cheap food, and large retailers and processors with the power to squeeze prices. Indeed, many small farmers cannot even pay themselves the minimum wage.

Given current pricing structures the NFU is in an almost impossible position. I acknowledge that it is an energetic advocate for British farming, but it would more plausible and effective if it did not turn a blind eye to the indefensible. We should be able to buy British food safe in the knowledge that it is well produced, with good animal husbandry, conservation and employment practices.

Any trade union has to defend its members, but the NFU should also be championing higher standards and setting a path for a better future for British farming.

Afterword, 17 May 2016: Felicity Lawrence had another powerful piece in the Guardian on 12 May, The gangsters on England’s doorstep. It does not give me confidence that, in Meurig Raymond’s words, “agriculture is… leading the way and should be held up as an example of best practice”.


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