A public consultation has been launched by DAERA on a proposal by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB).
Open for eight weeks, the consultation closes on 8 July 2021.
Irrespective of the outcome, the proposal will have to be agreed by the Stormont Executive and passed by the Stormont Assembly before it can come into law.
Whether it gets agreement from other parties is less than certain.
Minister Poots has met some initial resistance, with Sinn Fein agriculture spokesperson Declan McAleer indicating at the recent UFU AGM that his party wanted the board retained to “protect the rights of vulnerable workers”.
It is not the first time that the AWB has faced an uncertain future. Following a review back in 2011, former Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill decided to retain the existing structure, despite calls from the UFU for NI to follow the lead from England and abolish it entirely.
The latest DAERA consultation questions whether it is still necessary to retain an AWB given that the number of hired workers on farms has fallen from 39,222 in 1940, to 6,738 in 2019.
In addition, similar protections and provisions to those in AWB legislation are now in place for all workers via the likes of the national minimum wage, introduced in 1998, and the higher national living wage which came into force in April 2016.
The rate set by the AWB must be at least in line with this UK legislation, which from 1 April 2021 requires anyone aged 23 and over to be paid a minimum of £8.91 per hour.
However, while minimum wage rates are based on age, the AWB set rates based on the grade of worker.
A Grade 1 worker (someone in their first 40 weeks of employment) currently earns £6.95/hr, moving to £7.49 for a Grade 2 standard worker.
However, if these workers were aged 18 to 20, under minimum wage legislation, they would be paid £6.56/hr.
Under-18s would receive £4.62/hr.
As a result, the DAERA consultation points out that if the AWB is removed, it is young people who could potentially lose out.
Using data from a 2019 survey, the Department estimates that 3% of workers are aged under 18, with 10% aged from 18 to 20.
The analysis suggests that abolishing the AWB could see a reduction in total wages paid out to agricultural workers of £0.6m per year.
When the reduced administrative burden is taken into account, the total saving for employers is £0.7m.
However, DAERA acknowledges that these estimates are uncertain, and given the difficulty many farmers have in securing labour, there is some evidence that the rates of pay on farms are currently higher than the minimum required.
The current AWB has three independent members appointed by DAERA, six from the UFU and six are members of Unite the Union.
They meet three times per year to set pay rates, receiving both a rate per meeting and travel expenses. The cost of operating the board averages around £23,000 per year.
Speaking in the Stormont Assembly chamber last Tuesday, Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots described the AWB as a “quango”.
“The Agricultural Wages Board was there when agriculture wages were very low and we did not have minimum pay, and before a series of conditions on pensions, sick pay, maternity pay and paternity pay, for instance, were put in place,” he told Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson.