Andrew Arbuckle: Wage board should look at training

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On LONG journeys with fellow agricultural scribes, we occasionally pass the time with a variation of that game where you list the people you would most like to meet.

During one of those sessions, among the nominations of sports personalities – an oxymoron, as someone commented – entertainers and politicians, a colleague came up with Joseph Duncan, the founder of the Scottish Farm Servants Union.

My companion waxed eloquently on the efforts of this son of a Banffshire farm worker, who had also organised the creation of a union for those working in the North-East fishing industry.

In the early years of the last century, workers moved from farm to farm on an annual basis, relying on getting a “fee” at a hiring fair to ensure employment in the next 12 months.

This was a brutal system. Those who did not get a fee and faced unemployment often joined the army; the military seeing these hiring fairs as a good source of recruitment.

Duncan viewed the insecurity and constant movement as a social evil. It also provided a massive inequality ­between employer and employee, and so 100 years ago, the Scottish Farm ­Servants Union was set up to improve matters.

In the years of the First World War, farm incomes rose rapidly with an overall shortage of food. Workers’ wages were also increased, reflecting a shortage of labour caused by the war.

But the union really came to prominence in the 1920s, when farm incomes fell in the face of a flood of imported food and, with lots of former military men looking for work, farmers cut their wages bill.

Duncan’s organising abilities and oratory shone in those days and, despite the difficulties of gathering subscriptions from an ever-shifting workforce, union membership rose to more than 10,000 in 1926.

The 1930s were also difficult for farming, but by this time, Duncan was often seen on the same platforms as farming leaders arguing pragmatically against cheap and often subsidised imports.

The union he helped establish was taken over by the giant Transport & General Workers Union in 1933.

But possibly the bigger change to farm work was the standstill order imposed at the start of the Second World War. That ended the hiring fairs and the annual flitting of farm workers. Then, the radical Atlee post-war government established the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board (SAWB) in 1949.

With a balance of employers and employees, along with independent members who invariably make the final decision, some 60-plus years on this body still sets minimum pay rates along with a host of linked issues, such as how much a shepherd should get for keeping a dog.

Other wages boards were set up at the same time, but the SAWB is now the last survivor – even its English counterpart has been cast aside in a clear-out of quangos by the UK government.

We are currently in the consultation stage on the latest proposals for a 1.8 per cent wage rise for farm workers. This figure was reached by the SAWB after its meeting in May and it will either be ratified or rejected next month, with implementation in October.

It may seem rather extravagant to have a room full of (mostly) men arguing over a percentage point or two, but that is the system. The big issue nowadays is not the pay rates for top skilled workers, but for those on the lower rungs of the ladder – particularly the fruit and vegetable pickers.

Arguing that the arrival of the national minimum wage has overtaken the need for a wages board, the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland is actively seeking its abolition.

The NFUS believes special arrangements for farm workers should be removed, and pay and conditions determined under general employment law.

The Scottish Government has reviewed the position over the years and repeatedly decided it should stay.

My own view is that, with a relatively low cost of operation (estimated at around £130,000 a year) and the fact that checks on employers continue even now to throw up cases of underpayment or other forms of non-compliance with the wages order, there is still a need for a regulatory board.

But perhaps it should step out of its formulaic wage-setting role and take a wider look at how training the agricultural workforce could be improved through financial incentives.

On reflection, my travelling colleague’s suggestion of Joe Duncan was a good one. He is someone whose legacy is a fairer and generally better society.