Perhaps mindful of the expendability of their predecessors, the new crop of Defra Ministers appointed in September's Cabinet reshuffle have been keen to make a good impression. Defra Minister Owen Paterson has led from the front by announcing his intention to push through the pilot Badger Cull in 2013, along with his wholehearted support for the commercial licensing of GM crops. A close second however has been Lib Dem Farming Minister David Heath who, just one month into the job, announced his intention to scrap the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB).
In a press release titled "Getting rid of outdated labour restrictions will mean more jobs", Heath is curiously specific about the ability of his initiative to "create almost 1,000 new jobs while keeping workers well protected". He claims that plans to disband the AWB will complement the government's drive for a more efficient farming sector. "The law governing agricultural wages will be harmonised with the rest of the economy, ending an anomaly requiring farmers to follow outdated and bureaucratic rules dating back to the beginning of the 20th century."
The "anomaly" that Heath refers to was ironically introduced the last time his own party was in power in 1909 under a "People's Budget" aimed at protecting those workers most at risk of exploitation. The vast bulk of the people's wage boards were abolished under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but even these champions of neo-liberalism thought that agricultural workers were worthy of a degree of protection.
For the past two decades the independent AWB has continued to set a minimum wage for farm workers and fruit pickers in England and Wales. By evaluating agricultural workers separately the AWB has factored in specific costs associated with farmwork; the need for protective clothing and the comparatively higher food costs needed to sustain outdoor manual labour. As a result, all six categories of agricultural wages have until now been set above the national minimum wage. But farmworkers will now be judged by the same criteria as cleaners and shelf-stackers, and will as a result receive a minimum wage of £6.19 per hour before tax.