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Sinn Féin back union over farm wages

18 October, 2007

Sinn Féin Agriculture Spokesperson, Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA Gerry McHugh, who is also the party spokesperson on racism has welcomed today's statement from the Trade Union UNITE about the protection of farm wages.

Mr McHugh said:

"Many of our farm workers are among the lowest paid of workers in the north. It is essential that they have the strongest of legal protections.

"In many cases those who are on the lowest wages are migrant workers.

"While everyone involved in farming wants to see red tape cut this should not be at the expense of the low paid." ENDS

Note to Editors

Unite the union has blasted Northern Ireland agriculture chief Kenneth Sharkey for wanting to cut wages of farm labourers.

The Ulster Farmers' Union boss this week called for the abolition of the industry's Agricultural Wages Board and criticised NI Minister's Michelle Gildernew's decision to retain it. The farming leader said that the wages board was adding to red tape and he added farmers would be disappointed by the minister's decision.

But Gareth Scott, regional industrial organiser for Unite launched a scathing attack on the farming chief, claiming his organisation's criticism had nothing to do with bureaucracy but a blatant attempt to cut wages of farm employees in Ulster.

The UFU president said in a statement: "The UFU has advocated that with the National Minimum Wages structure in place, the Agricultural Wages Board is an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy for farmers.

"We have consistently highlighted this point to all our local political representatives and it was part of the 'Five Steps to a Better Future' Document presented to our political parties last December by the UFU."

But the Unite union officer claimed: "We believe that UFU wish to further lower wages and exploit agricultural workers in Northern Ireland, particularly migrant and temporary workers, as a source of cheap labour. Their aim is to make Northern Ireland the agricultural sweat shop of Western Europe."

Adding: "T&G Section of Unite is totally opposed to any move to reduce earnings and the standard of living for Agricultural workers. We are opposed to the exploitation of workers whether they are indigenous, migrant or temporary workers. We are opposed to Northern Ireland becoming the agricultural sweat shop of these islands."

Mr Scott went on to say: "Given the fragmented and isolated nature of the agricultural workforce, the strong links between home and job, and the need to protect migrant and seasonal workers from exploitation, the Government decided to retain the agricultural minimum wage when the national minimum wage was introduced in 1999. These concerns remain valid today and the minister considered that it appropriate to maintain the current protections given to agricultural workers. The T&G Section of Unite fully supports the minister's decision."

The AWB sets a minimum wage rate for agricultural workers which provides reasonable earnings for workers but which is affordable for the industry. The Northern Ireland Agricultural Wages Board rate is lower than England, Wales or Scotland.

The current rates are: England & Wales AWB - standard rate = £6 per hour; Scotland AWB - standard rate = £5.96 per hour; Northern Ireland AWB - standard rate = £5.70 per hour.

The union officer added: "If we were follow Mr Sharkey's proposals, then workers in the industry could face an 18 pence an hour cut in their wages as the minimum hourly rate for a person over 22 is £5.52."

He then went on to attack the UFU's own position on 'red tape: "Up until this year the Northern Ireland AWB only set one minimum rate, however, at the proposal of the UFU this year's Wages Order introduced six grades based on qualifications and skills.

"The T&G Section of Unite believed this to be totally unnecessary and difficult to police, however the UFU argued for its introduction.

"I am now amazed at the UFU's claim that the AWB has become another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy when it is they who created any unnecessary bureaucracy."

Finally he said: "This is just a cheap shot at cutting workers pay." Ends

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