Century-old pay struggle for 'brother to the ox'

I BOUGHT a second-hand paperback recently, Brother To The Ox. This is "the autobiography of a farm labourer" by Fred Kitchen, first published more than 60 years ago, and it's a thought that the £3 I paid for a well-worn book is probably more than Kitchen ever earned for a 48-to-52-hour week.

Long ago and far away, of course, but his no-frills, factual description of what it was like to labour on farms for a pittance - when it meant hard graft with forks, graips, shovels, hedge knives and hoes in all weathers - with the threat of eviction from a tied cottage hanging over all is a useful reminder of how things used to be.

Or even as some reports suggest they still are, more frequently than we would like to believe, with exploitation of seasonal workers from countries such as Portugal and Poland.

Awful accommodation at high rents, illegally long hours and less than the minimum wage where employers or gang masters can get away with it would ring a bell with Kitchen and the hundreds of thousands of others who used to work Britain's farms and who could have applied Churchill's famous phrase about offering blood, toil, tears and sweat to their own back-bent struggle to make a living for their families.

Among such workers was George Edwards, who, on 20 July, 1906, founded the Agricultural Labourers Union. He had hoed a hard row to get there from his birth in 1850, one of six children of a Norfolk farm worker who had spent time in prison for "stealing" turnips to feed his family.

At age six he was bird-scaring for a shilling (5p) a week. His father had been earning seven shillings for a six-day week until black-listed. As a young farm worker, Edwards was sacked in 1872 for supporting Joseph Arch's attempt to start a farm workers' union. In 1889, Edwards was asked by farm workers to form a local union in Norfolk, acting as secretary at 15 shillings a week until it folded in 1895.

A decade later a general election was the trigger for the final, successful, attempt to form a major union. The Liberals won the 1906 election and Labour, a presence for the first time, took 30 seats as the Tories were routed. Norfolk farmers, according to the union's historians, "took their revenge by sacking and evicting scores of workers whom they suspected of not voting Tory."

Edwards was asked to help workers defend themselves by forming a union, and at the Angel Inn, North Walsham, a century ago this week he started the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers' and Small Holders Union with 122 members, receiving 13 shillings a week as secretary. By 1907 it had 3,000 members and in 1912 had members throughout the country, changing its name to the National Agricultural Labourers' and Rural Workers Union.

Edwards went on to become a Labour MP and was knighted, dying in 1933. His successors and union members continued his struggle, with much of the hard work ahead of them.

They were not unique or alone in suffering at a time when the historical pendulum was far over on the employers' side. A million miners could suffer the same wage cuts for longer hours, arbitrary sackings and evictions that farm workers endured. But rural poverty bit more deeply and victimisation could be more severe in small communities.

Establishment of a national minimum wage and regular hours was a priority. Parliament got as far as discussing it in 1913, but it took the First World War - when an estimated 400,000 farm workers joined up or were conscripted, frightening farmers with labour shortages - to produce a legal minimum of 25 shillings a week in 1917.

It didn't last. The slump in farming's fortunes after the war brought pressure from farmers on politicians and the minimum wage was scrapped. Pay dropped from a war time high of 46 shillings to 28 shillings a week by 1924, by when the union had become the National Union of Agricultural Workers.

There was another cut of two shillings a week the next year and hours were increased to 54. Payment by the hour meant workers could be laid off without notice. After an attempted strike for a 25-shillings, 50-hour deal, more than 1,000 farm workers were sacked and evicted. It was not until 1936 that farm workers were allowed to draw unemployment benefit and, surprise, surprise, it took another world war for a minimum wage to be reintroduced.

By 1944, when Kitchen's book was first published and he was about to retire, the minimum was 65 shillings for 50 hours. Post-war prosperity came to farming, but farm workers' wages stayed, as the union claimed year after year at Agricultural Wages Board negotiations, "bottom of the pile".

If only farmers, via the National Farmers Union, had agreed to wage increases in line with profit increases, much of the acrimony could have been avoided. But that's not the way business works. As wages were kept down, investment in mechanisation increased. Summary eviction from cottages tied to farm jobs was not banned until 1976. By 1981 the minimum wage had reached 64. Now the number of full-time farm staff continues to decline steadily as the number of seasonal migrant workers increases.

The union founded by George Edwards and of which Kitchen was a member merged with the Transport and General union in 1982 as the Rural, Agricultural and Allied Workers' trade group. It has had some dedicated and effective secretaries since Edwards, notably Reg Bottini, Jack Boddy and Barry Leathwood.

For most of the union's century the lot of farm workers has been poor. Without the efforts of Edwards and his successors and union volunteers the sobering thought is that it would have been much worse.

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