The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has expressed its “anger and bewilderment” at claims made in an online document by trade union Unite entitled Stormont Hands off our Farm Workers – Defend and Expand the Agriculture Wages Board (AWB).

Written in response to a recent public consultation on proposals set out by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots to abolish the AWB, the Unite paper calls for the body to be retained and expanded to cover workers in agri-food processing.

However, the UFU, which has long argued that the AWB is outdated given that it is superseded by the national minimum wage (NMW) and the national living wage (NLW), has taken issue with what it says are a number of claims and inaccuracies in the Unite contribution.

In particular, Unite alleges that the UFU “champions the interests of big ranchers and the agri-food bosses” and goes on to effectively question Minister Poots’ independence, given that (according to Unite) he is a member of the UFU.

However, while the Minister was a UFU member in the past, it is understood he resigned his membership prior to taking up his ministerial post.

Pay and conditions

But aside from that, the main issue for the UFU is a statement in the Unite paper that abolishing the AWB will lead to a “race to the bottom” for workers’ pay and conditions, leaving the likes of migrant labour to be exploited by “unscrupulous bosses”.

It goes on to suggest that trafficking of agricultural field workers is widely reported and that modern day slavery is a major problem in NI.

“AWB plays a vital role in addressing potential exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers – its abolition will signal the green light to these criminal practices,” states the Unite paper.

'False claims'

According to the UFU, these are preposterous and false claims.

The union points out that the AWB does not rule on these issues and instead it is the Gangmaster and Labour Authority (GLAA) that has far reaching powers, which will continue to protect workers.

UFU-led AWB representative Robert McCloy has called on Unite to withdraw immediately the remarks made in the online document.

“The language and the tone of this paper has damaged relations between the UFU and Unite," he said.

“We will continue to call for the abolition of the outdated AWB and would urge MLAs to consider the facts rather than the inaccurate statements littered throughout the Unite paper,” said McCloy.

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