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Farm Workers (Earnings)

Volume 19: debated on Sunday 4 April 1982

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asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he is satisfied with the rate of increase in real terms of farm workers' earnings.

I am satisfied that the level of farm workers' earnings strikes a fair balance between the interests of employers and employees in agriculture.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there have been enormous improvements in productivity in agriculture over recent years, especially in comparison with other industries? Is she aware that farm workers have played a crucial role in co-operating towards that achievement and that, in the process, they have improved substantially their skills and responsibilities? Will she ensure that the efforts of those concerned are fully recognised in future negotiations?

I readily acknowledge that farm workers have made a notable contribution to agriculture's record of increased productivity. The reward for improved productivity is a matter for individual employers and employees.

In view of what the Minister says, is it not a disgrace that the average earnings of farm workers are now £30 a week below the average earnings of industrial workers and that the gap is getting wider? Is it not an absolute scandal that more farm workers receive family income supplement than any other single group of workers, despite their fantastic production record?

I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Lady's figures, but the gap between agricultural and industrial earnings is narrowing. In 1970 farm workers' earnings were about 70 per cent. of industrial earnings. In 1981 they were about 80 per cent. The agriculture and fishing industries contain the second largest group of two-parent families receiving family income supplement. The figures have to be interpreted with care, because they include agriculture and fisheries, and self-employed and part-time agricultural workers.

Is it not correct that both sides of the agricultural wages board have acknowledged that the board is serving the industry well? Does not the harmony in the industry reflect this basic satisfaction?

Yes, indeed. I am satisfied that the board has a wide enough brief to consider all the factors in making its awards. I have complete confidence in the board and its chairman.

Does the Minister not accept that farm workers are skilled workers and that the industry, under successive Governments, has consistently underpaid them? Has she seen a written answer that I received from her right hon. Friend, which shows that, with the exception of the Irish Republic, farm workers in the United Kingdom are the worst paid in the EEC? Will she join me in urging all farm workers to join the Transport and General Workers Union, with which the agricultural workers union has recently decided to merge, so that the TGWU can advance farm workers' interests as effectively as the National Farmers Union advances those of farmers?

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised if I do not support any of his latter remarks. I note his comment about agricultural wages. The Agricultural Wages Board is independent and autonomous. It has a wide representation of employers and employees. I am satisfied that those employers and employees and all the interests in agriculture have ample opportunity to make their cases to the board.